“An Extraordinary Act” Colchester Federated Church, April 3, 2022, (John 12:1-8) Fifth Sunday in Lent

As we move into this Fifth Sunday in Lent, we find ourselves at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary in Bethany.  It is just six days before Passover and Jesus has once again joined his close friends at their home.  These Gospel events occur after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead.  Lazarus, Martha, and Mary host a dinner for their friend Jesus.  Martha serves the meal.  Remember in Luke’s Gospel Martha was the sibling who was preoccupied with getting everything ready for the meal when Jesus came to their home.  Anyway, Martha is at it again—being the one to feed everybody at the family table.  Lazarus is depicted in this story as sitting down at the table and eating with their guests. 

Our attention then turns to Mary.  In that Gospel story from Luke Chapter 10, Mary had sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to his message.  In our Gospel story from John Chapter 12 today Mary performs an extraordinary act.  Mary takes what John categorizes as an extraordinary amount of perfume made with pure nard—almost three-quarters of a pound.  Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with this ointment and wipes his feet dry with her hair.  John writes, “The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume.”[1]  Now when Judas challenges Mary and Jesus about this act because of how expensive the perfume happened to be, Jesus comes to Mary’s defense.  Jesus says to Judas, “Leave her alone.  This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it.  You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”[2]

So what do we make of this story?  Perhaps it helps to understand what nard even is in the first place.  Wikipedia can teach us that nard (also known as spikenard) is an aromatic essential oil that is amber-colored and made from a flowering plant that is part of the honeysuckle family.  That plant grows in the Himalayas of Nepal and in China and India, quite literally it grows at an altitude of about 9,800 to 16,400 ft.  Over the centuries, this oil has been used as a perfume, as incense, for traditional medicine, and even in religious ceremonies.[3]  Nard appears in a few places in the Bible, including in the Song of Songs and in the Gospels of Mark and John.  Nard is mentioned in the context of being used for its fragrance.  This perfume made of pure nard would not have been an item that Mary could have probably run down and gotten from the corner store any day of the week.  It would have been special and imported from the Himalayas most likely, and therefore all the more expensive.  We don’t know how long Mary had this nard on hand.  For all we know, she could have bought it after Lazarus died and Jesus raised him from death because Mary and Martha didn’t have something like this to anoint their beloved brother.  But it is not an exaggeration that what she used to anoint Jesus’ feet would have cost a year’s worth of wages.  It was an extraordinary act of love that Mary performed for Jesus.

Gail R. O’Day relates in The Women’s Bible Commentary, “The anointing is an act of pure extravagance, underscored by the comment that the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  Mary has anointed Jesus so lavishly that all present can participate in it.  This is the second time a scent has been connected with this family.  In 11:39 Martha worried about the odor of Lazarus’ rotting corpse.  Here, however, the odor is the marvelous fragrance of nard.  The odor of death has been replaced by the odor emanating from Mary’s extravagant love.”[4]

The sense of smell is a powerful sense.  It has been closely linked with memory, maybe more so than our other senses.  As explained by Colleen Walsh in The Harvard Gazette, “Smells are handled by the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to the other areas of the body’s central command for further processing. Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory.”[5]  It ends up that smell and emotion are stored as one memory inside of our brains.

The sense of smell is a more developed sense in children until around age 10 when sight tends to take over.  Though in our early childhoods we are forming smells that we will love and smells that we will despise for the rest of our lives.  The sense of smell is that powerful within our minds.  Think about this for a moment.  Some people love the smell of freshly cut grass—there are candles that we can burn in our homes that are that scent.  For others, that smell means that this is going to set their allergies off and they can’t stand it.  Some people love the distinctive smell of Old Spice.  But what if a former flame wore Old Spice and now that smell is just awful?  The smell of steak cooking will perhaps land differently if someone loves steak or despises steak.  There’s a reason why there are so many types of perfumes, scented candles, essential oils—we don’t all love the same smells.  And our sense of smell is strongly related to our emotions and our memories.   

When dealing with Covid, I was mostly fine until I lost my senses of taste and smell—that led to a bit of a breakdown because I worried that my senses wouldn’t return.  My mother remarked, “Well, I hope you’ll be able to taste your wedding cake” which was not exactly a helpful thing to say in the moment.  Washing my hair, I couldn’t smell the shampoo.  Putting lotion on or spraying perfume—I couldn’t smell any of it.  Lighting a scented candle—the flame was there and the scent should have been there, but it wasn’t.  Not to mention not being able to smell or taste any food.  It was such a strange experience, and fortunately my senses returned after a few days.

Perhaps Covid led to focusing on nard in our Gospel story on this Fifth Sunday in Lent.  Though it is striking because it’s not as if nard is all over the pages of the Bible.  This story shows an extraordinary act of compassion with a rare and expensive perfume that did indeed fill the house with the marvelous fragrance.  The lavish anointing meant that everybody in that room could participate in this act of discipleship.  From this day on, we can imagine that whenever anybody present smelled nard again, they would remember this moment when Mary ministered to her friend Jesus.  This act foreshadows Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  This act foreshadows Jesus crucified and the women who will show up to anoint his battered body only to find an empty tomb.  If we want an example of the kind of compassion that Jesus taught, we can look no further than Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus.  May she inspire us to go and do likewise.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 12:3, CEB.
[2] John 12:7-8.
[3] “Spikenard” on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spikenard
[4] Gail R. O’Day, Commentary on “The Anointing of Jesus (John 12:1-8)” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Eds. Carol A. Newsome, Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Third Edition Revised and Updated, pgs. 524-525.
[5] Colleen Walsh, “What the nose knows,” The Harvard Gazette, February 27, 2020, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/02/how-scent-emotion-and-memory-are-intertwined-and-exploited/