The Scent of Salvation
So here we are. We’re getting closer to the end now. In our Gospel text, Jesus is being anointed in anticipation of his death, in an act of lavish devotion by Mary of Bethany.
This passage, of course, startles us. Mary’s action seems sensuous, even erotic. We’re not quite sure what to make of its strangeness. So some of us will want to pass right over the feet and the hair and the costly perfumed oil… jumping right to the conundrum of the statement: “you always have the poor with you.”
But I think we would be wise to linger with the feet and the hair and the oil, at least for a few moments.
During my first Holy Week at St. Peter’s, I remember being told that you probably wouldn’t have your feet washed on Maundy Thursday.
A brave few, yes, but certainly not the multitudes. I was told not to be disappointed when most of you didn’t come forward, when you stayed in your pews and exempted yourself from this holy encounter. But I was determined. I was determined to wash your feet. And many of you did come forward that year. Many more, I was told, than had ever come forward before. You came forward barefooted. Bare feet on cold stone. And then… Warm water. Skin in touch with skin. A cotton towel. And then it’s over. Just a moment. A moment of contact.
But some of you teared up. Some of you smiled. Some of you made eye contact. Some of you looked away. It’s hard to be completely indifferent to this act. Even if you’re not quite sure what it means. Not quite sure what it does. Not quite sure if it matters.
Ritualized touch. Holy touch. In a world terrified of touching. In a world where touching has earned a terrible reputation. Perceived more often as a source of harm than as a source of healing. Touch is experienced largely as threatening, dangerous–because it has been misused far too often, especially in the church.
And yet still, touch can move us. Still, we crave touch. Still, touch can be safe, sacred, moving, transformative.
I remember that back when I lived on my own in Vermont for 3 years, I decided to treat myself to a massage every other week. And I did so largely because I needed to be touched, needed to be reminded that I was human. I sometimes cried on the table as the built-up lack of human contact was slowly remediated, for at least an hour and its afterglow.
And yet, many of us are so hesitant to admit that we need touch, that we get too little of it, that it matters. We get embarrassed about being enfleshed creatures with real physical needs–including the need for contact, for touch.
You see, touch is not a luxury. Touch isn’t silly or superfluous. Touch can, at its best, be holy, transformative, sacramental.
Which is why, like Mary, we often use oil to amplify the church’s ritualized forms of sacred touch. We touch with oil at baptism. We touch with oil in illness and at death. And we have special oils for these purposes. Here at St. Peter’s, our holy oils are tucked away in a cabinet in the Altar Guild sacristy. We get a new supply each year, blessed by the Bishop during a Holy Week liturgy at the cathedral, with all the clergy of the Diocese gathered together. Each priest takes a supply back to his or her parish, to be used for these holy moments. And we get a lot of oil. Too much oil for the handful of baptisms we do each year and for the number of times we anoint the sick and the dying. We’ll be getting a new supply next Tuesday.
So I’d like to share the Chrism with you: the wonderfully fragrant oil we use at baptism. Most of you probably don’t remember your baptisms, probably can’t remember the strong scent of balsam that can permeate the whole church, if you use enough of it. But I think we need to remember. We need to invite the olfactory imagination, our sense of smell, to participate in our hearing of today’s Gospel text.
[I have some small containers of oil here that I’d like you to pass around the church to smell and enjoy. Please don’t hesitate to move around a bit in order to share them.]
Now, while you smell and enjoy, I invite you to think about and imagine Mary pouring a copious quantity of a similar substance over Jesus’ feet. An extremely messy act. Perhaps, to some, a wasteful act. A non-sensical act, at least to the rational mind.
But a beautiful, moving, and meaningful act for the nose, for the senses. A way of marking this moment, this encounter, this relationship–as sacred, holy, transformative.
Indeed, the ancient world was ripe with odor of both human and animal origin, so sacred spaces were set apart by making them smell sweet. As such, Mary is participating in a long tradition of demarcating a sacred space, a place where she has encountered the Holy, by perfuming it with a luxurious scent. This scent expresses all that Jesus has meant to her…and how she has encountered the Holy in him Indeed, Jesus had just raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. And Mary is grateful. So incredibly grateful.
Mary’s action isn’t that difficult to understand. It reminds me of several instances in which I’ve purchased a gift for an upcoming holiday. Then, while waiting for the holiday to arrive, I have occasionally, while feeling a strong sense of love or gratitude for the gift’s intended recipient, found myself running to get the not-yet-wrapped gift and giving it then-and-there, saying: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I just couldn’t wait! I really want you to have it!”
This is the kind of energy I imagine that Mary might have had, when she cracked open the jar containing an entire pound of expensive perfumed oil. The wonderful energy of overflowing love that could only find expression in the gratuity of such an extravagant gift.
And as I imagine Jesus in this scene, I see him breathing in deeply, enjoying the gorgeous aroma that has suddenly filled the room, grateful for Mary’s love and for this moment of respite. Tears welling in his eyes with awe at the care that is being shown to him. Because these last days have been difficult. His ministry has been under intensifying scrutiny, and he knows that the end is coming closer and closer.
In fact, the lectionary omits several telling verses at the end of this passage. John tells his readers that, just as Jesus’ feet were being anointed a great crowd learned where Jesus was…
“…and they came [there] not only because of him, but also to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”
The end was most surely coming. Plans were being made. And while some realized how little time they had left with Jesus, and seized the moment to say “thank you” and “I love you,” others, like Judas, could only sneer at such expressions of devotion.
And I don’t think the poor are really the cause of Judas’ objection. Rather, I think Judas was simply uncomfortable. Uncomfortable… perhaps because he already knew what he was going to do. Perhaps because his heart had already hardened toward Jesus, and he couldn’t bear to witness this display of love. The love he had once felt. Maybe still felt. The love that he felt he had to kill, in order to to save himselfwhen Jesus went down.
It was all too much for Judas. The feet, the hair, the oil. The appalling intimacy of it all. This boundless faith in a man who was about to be done away with. Didn’t they get it yet? Didn’t they see where this was going? That they could all go down with him?
Maybe they did know. Or maybe they didn’t. But for this moment, at least, there’s a dinner party happening. And a beautiful aroma wafting out the windows, beckoning the curious crowd ever closer. People are still ready to believe in Jesus. Even now. Even this close to the end. So here we are. Won’t you pull up a chair, and stay for awhile?