The Aroma of Christ 3/21/10

Rev. Karin Wright
March 21, 2010
John 12:1-8

Aroma (n.) – perfume, fragrance, smell, odor, scent, stink, stench, trail, trace, essence

The relationship between smell and memory

There is a complexity to memory that is astounding.  In my psychology classes in college, I was surprised to find that memory is really not all that reliable.  Memory is malleable and flexible like clay.  This is why little children do not always make for reliable witnesses.  This is also why eye witnesses can swear that they saw a Red Truck race away when video evidence may show it was actually a black sedan.  The human mind is not always as logical and linear as we might like it to be.  But an interesting thing happens when you add the senses to memory, especially the sense of smell.

Suddenly memory becomes a little sharper, more detailed.  The French writer, Marcel Proust, was one of the first authors to note this clear connection between memory and smell with his recollection of a childhood memory comes back to him full force upon just tasting and smelling the traditional madeleines cookies dipped in tea.  “Throughout the work many similar instances of involuntary memory, triggered by sensory experiences such as sights, sounds, smells and so on, conjure important memories for the narrator, and sometimes return attention to an earlier episode.”[1]

The passage that we read in John is one of those very strong memories that is linked to the physical senses, and the very rich experience of a house being filled with the very strong odor from the ointment/nard that Mary was using.  The aroma filled their tiny house and spilled out into the air around them, probably in the same way that the smell of a turkey roasting and pumpkin pie baking fills our houses in November.  This story is included in all four gospels.  It was a holy moment that someone thought was important enough to repeat … and so the story was passed around the early Christian church and some of the details changed in the telling, but the essence of the story … the fragrance of this story remains the same: A woman kneels to minister to her friend, her teacher, and her savior.  Jesus defends her ministry and says that it is worthwhile.  More than worthwhile, is important!  But the use of such expensive oils when someone was not even dead … it is such an extravagant, costly action to take that it makes us wonder why Mary did it in the first place.  Maybe looking at where we are in the gospel will help.

Setting the Scene and Understanding the context

Our passage with Mary’s anointing happens almost immediately after the raising of Lazarus (who is her brother).  This passage is also just before Jesus’ descent into Jerusalem.  Mary has just barely had time to wrap her head around the fact that her brother is alive again, and they are likely preparing for Passover and making holiday plans.  Somewhere in the busy-ness of the meal planning and making, a holy moment breaks into the evening.  People were already on edge.  They’re nervous that the crowd that has followed Jesus will get spooked by his most recent miracles, and that the peace that has been maintained is about to be disrupted by the rising tensions about to reach their tipping point.  So, when Mary bends to care for Jesus in such a obliquely servant-like manner, physical show of affection using oils that were pricey, and beautiful smelling, everyone’s frustrations find a focus …. They focused on the scandalous nature of Mary behaving towards Jesus as she would towards a family member, moreover, as a family member who has passed away.

In today’s culture, we often use funeral homes, and death has become somewhat removed from our daily lives.  But in this ancient culture, it was the women who took care of the bodies of their loved ones after they passed away.  Mary might have even used this same perfume on her brother Lazarus when he passed away, before Jesus raised him up.  This smell reminds her of everyone she’s ever loved that has died.  Except now one of those loved ones is no longer dead, and this smell reminds her of the new life that her whole family has found as a result of Jesus’ love.  Mary’s use of such expensive oils when someone was not even dead reminds us of the mini-resurrections that we experience throughout our lives.  It is not just in Christ’s death that we receive and find new life; it is also in Jesus’ life and ministry that we receive a second chance, a clean slate, a new breath, and renewed energy.

Our Journey with Jesus to Jerusalem

In two weeks, the arrival of the Easter lilies will fill this sanctuary with the fragrance of new life, of the resurrection, and mark the victory of Jesus’ life, death, and ministry.  Mary’s use of such expensive oils when someone was not even dead reminds us of the need to celebrate and consecrate our daily resurrections.  To enunciate and point out the holiness of daily living, the wonderful physical-ness of being alive and able to appreciate this world God has created.

What are the holy moments in your life?  Jesus defends Mary’s actions and in so doing defends the many ways in which we show love to each other.  There are a myriad of ways in which we are all ministers … what are the ways in which you show your love to those around you?  Do you knit prayer shawls or afghans?  Do you prepare a meal for someone on an especially difficult day?  Do you drop cards in the mail for people who need a pick-me-up or just a recognition that someone was thinking about them?  Do you encourage your kids to do and be their best?  Do you support your friends when they are going through a difficult time?  Do you listen?  Do you prepare meals for people who need a free meal … or just some company?  Maybe the way you love others is by providing for them, and for taking care of the buildings and cars that they inhabit and use daily.

Each of those actions of loving, no matter what they are, those actions have the essence and aroma of Christ in them.  They leave a trace in the world of our Lord’s saving grace and amazing love.  And so I ask you, do you exude the aroma of Christ in your life?  Mary anointed Jesus’ feet.  How do you anoint the presence of God in your life?  How do you celebrate new life in Christ?

Let us pray: Breathe on us breath of God so that we might be filled by your Holy Spirit.  Permeate our being, Holy Spirit so that we may exude the aroma of Christ into the world.

[1] Wikipedia, In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust,


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