Monday, April 2, 2012

The Scent of God

By Chris Saxton
A homily preached at Trinity College Chapel, Toronto, Canada
Monday in Holy Week 201

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ John 12:1-8

As many of you here know, my pre-seminary career was as a Sommelier. And over that time, the oldest bottle of wine that I ever served (and tasted) was a 1925 bottle of Spanish Rioja. This was in the year 2000, so the wine was 75 years old at the time. It had, as all old red wines do, lost its colour and was a pale tawny hue. For a Sommelier, it is always bittersweet when a rare and expensive bottle of wine is sold. You are pleased that you will have the honour of serving (and nosing it), but there is always an element of mourning in that this is an experience that can never be duplicated. In this case, the wine was purchased as a way of showing off at the dinner celebrating the completion of a financial deal between a Tobacco company and a brokerage house. To my mind the wine was too rare and delicate to be appreciated by group a scotch and martini swilling men.

I opened the wine, carefully decanted and served it to the six most important men at the table. They kindly offered a glass to me. It was a transcendent experience. The wine had a nose of barley sugar and dried flowers - violets and rose petals - and the aroma overflowed the glass and filled the room. I was transported to a memory of my grandmother's desk. In one drawer she kept a tin of sweets as well as a book of keepsakes where she kept invitations, cards and the like as well as pressed flowers from special occasions…

Have you ever had an experience where a fragrance has overwhelmed you? Where a door has been opened, a meal has been put before you, a breeze has come from an unexpected direction, and you are flooded by memory?

One of the hardest things I had to do as a sommelier was to train students how to smell, how to identify what was the smell that they were actually smelling. It is an ability that, if I were to generalize, is more acute in women. I would speculate that women have a better memory for detail and situation than men. A man might remember more specifically what happened or was said, in what order - while a woman might remember nuances of the environment and the emotional resonances of the situation. And smell is so entwined with memory. It is one of the primary triggers for memory. 

"The house was filled with the fragrance…" says the gospel.

What memories and smells would have been in Mary of Bethany's mind as she approaches Jesus that night? Perhaps she is lost in the memory of Jesus' first visit to the house of Mary, her sister Martha, and her brother Lazarus? We know that Mary and Martha story, how Martha was so busy in the kitchen, preparing for her special guest Jesus and how her sister Mary sat out in the living room, kneeling and listening to the words and wisdom of Jesus. What would she have smelled? The smells that come in the cool of the evening mixing with the wholesome smells of the meal that Martha was fussing over? We remember that in that story, Jesus gently chastises Martha - the doer, the one who gets things done - for her frenetic activity and busyness in her kitchen and he praised Mary - who abides, who is present - saying that she had chosen the better part of sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his words and wisdom. For stopping and "smelling the roses."

Or on the night of this gospel passage would Mary have been remembering the smells associated with the death of her brother, Lazarus? In that story she was also at her Lord's feet - smelling on him perhaps the dust of the road as she reproaches him gently; "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died" and looking up with her eyes full of tears she sees her beloved Jesus weeping. What would Jesus' tears have smelt like to her? Like a summer rain on long parched soil?

Or perhaps, in her memory, smell takes her to the less wholesome smells of Lazarus tomb and to Martha's interaction with her Lord. We all know Martha's in our lives, churches especially thrive on Marthas; bright eyed practical people without whom we would starve and live in utter disorganization. According to the King James translation, the practical… "Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days." Was that the smell in Mary's memory as she approached our Lord on that evening?

Mary, the listener. Mary, the emotional one. Mary, the sensitive soul. Mary who was prone to tears. Mary took a jar of expensive perfume. She fell at Jesus’ feet as if she knew something that other people didn’t fully realize. She knew that this man was soon to die. She sensed in that moment, she wanted to do something special for Jesus. So in a radical departure from appropriate custom, she let her hair down, her glorious hair, her hair that had been tightly braided around her head and she again started to weep. The Gospel of Luke account tells us that she wet his feet with her tears, wiped his feet with her hair, kissed his feet, and then anointed his feet with the expensive perfume.

It was a most loving and tender gesture, so intimate, almost too intimate, making everyone in the room feel uncomfortable. She was doing the right thing towards Jesus at the right moment. Some people have that gift: the gift of doing the right thing for someone at the right moment. Some of you have that gift, the ability to recognize the sacredness of a moment and to do the right thing. Some of you have such a gift. Mary did. Mary did the sensitive thing at the right moment, sharing her love and thanksgiving for Jesus.

What was Mary’s motivation to do this sacred act? Maybe her deep love and affection for Jesus grew from their relationship where Jesus had taught her so much about God and love. Maybe her deep affection was because Jesus had given her brother Lazarus back to her. Maybe her deep affection is that she loved Jesus and knew he was going to die very soon, and she wanted to make a last loving gesture to him. We don’t know what her motives were. Perhaps her deep affection for Jesus was grounded in all of these. What we do know is that Mary made a gift of herself, an extravagant gift of love for Jesus that we are all called to emulate. This beautiful Mary, this compassionate Mary, gives a gift to Jesus that is utterly outrageous in value. A pound of spikenard was worth 300 denarii’s, a year’s wages by most people standards. It came in pint-sized alabaster flasks or boxes and she literally broke the entire jar upon Jesus’ feet.

What does it smell like? What would Mary smell? Not necessarily what you might expect a perfume to smell like, if your expectations are of a floral garden. Spikenard has a profound and complex aroma, a combination sweet/spicy/musky, a very organic earthy scent. A smell that is bursting with life and with promise. 

Mary did not count the cost; she never seemed to care about the cost.  She was totally oblivious to what others were thinking when she was with Jesus.  This is indicated by the fact that she wipes his feet with her hair, a gesture of profound love and intimacy. As far as Mary is concerned there is no one else there, no one else that mattered save her Lord.

This is absolute adoration, beyond ritual, beyond liturgy, beyond all practicality. This is the way to come to Jesus (and later Jesus tells us this is the way he wants us to come to the poor, to love the unlovable, to love each other - extravagantly and beyond all practicality).

At this last oasis on his journey to the cross, Jesus is loved, truly loved in the manner that he deserves. Loved while he is with Mary, as he will soon be gone. 

What does it mean for us to wet Jesus feet with our tears, and with extravagant love. What does it mean for us to affectionately dry his feet - to use the glory of our hair in utter and startling humility of service to God and to others. What does it mean for us to anoint his feet for burial?

The wine I spoke of at the beginning of this homily, the smell that filled the restaurant as well as my memory soon disappeared. That is the way it is with old wines they blossom, they transcend, and then they are gone. So it was with the smell of the pound of costly perfume made of pure Nard for Mary - filling the house and then gone. It would have lingered for a time on her hands, in her hair, and in the room and then it would be gone. It would have clung to Jesus the longest.

What does God smell like?

"Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume."

The house would have been suffused with fragrance and with memory and with love. As is this place. This place where we remember Jesus. Where we are called to serve Jesus, as did both Mary and also her sister Martha each in their separate ways. 

We do, we remember, and we love. We perform loving acts of service for Jesus and for our neighbours. And the memory of Mary's extravagant act reminds us that Jesus Christ is never gone but is present with us - with both the Martha's and with the Mary's among us - present with us always.

Chris Saxton is in his final year as an year MDiv student at Trinity College, Canada's oldest centre for theological study in the Anglican Church of Canada. Like the college he is liberal and catholic in his views, and also rather old coming to Divinity after a long career as a sommelier, and a wine educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @ckwsaxton


  1. Dear Christopher:

    It is a marvelous homily. You perception of the experiences that can never be duplicated, and your gift to do the right things for people at the right moment, when the time is right, are absolutely impressive.

    Moreover, I love that you know the last oasis on Jesus' journey to the cross is love, and Jesus is loved, truly loved in the manner that He deserves.

    Nicely said, nicely done, and your growth at Trinity is astonishing. It was absolutely the right time for me to hear the homily. Thank you! And the best of luck with your ordination.


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