Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”
This is a household that new the stench of death, a family that had experienced death’s cruel sting. Just one chapter earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus comes to Martha and Mary too late – Lazarus has died, he lay buried four days in his tomb, we hear that the stench of death and decay emanated from it. At that time, when Mary threw herself at Jesus’ feet it was to weep and protest that if he came sooner their brother would be alive. Jesus himself, moved by the mourning, by the loss, and by the sting of death; wept. The stench of death and decay, the pain of death and loss, fills the town, the homes, and the hearts of all present at the tomb of their dearly loved Lazarus. Jesus, however, in the final sign of his ministry, shows that he is the resurrection and the life, and calls Lazarus out of his tomb – o death, where is your sting.
And so here we are, Jesus and Lazarus recline at table, Martha serves, and Mary once again throws herself at Jesus’ feet – though this time there are no tears of bitterness, no confrontation and disappointment instead there is an outpouring of lavish care and tenderness. Taking a posture of humility she anoints Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume and dries it with her hair, the smell fills the house – this is not the smell of decay, nor of death, this is the smell of abundance, of beauty, of life.
But why has Mary performed this act?
If you’ve been in church for any length of time you will have likely heard an answer to this question – it is for the same reason we observe the season of Lent. Jesus is on his way to Calvary, on his way to arrest, betrayal, and execution by crucifixion. Jesus has been preparing his disciples for the fact that he will be handed over to the powers that be, will be crucified, die, and on the third day rise again. The disciples are having a hard time grasping this, but the event is drawing closer – in fact the raising of Lazarus is the final straw, it is following that miracle that the religious leaders plan to put Jesus to death. So Mary’s act is one of a disciple who understands that Jesus is on his way to his death – to a gruesome death, which will show no tenderness or care for his body, and so, in this moment, she not only honours his body, but also, as Jesus himself identifies, prepares him for burial.
But there is more to the act, for the house was filled with the fragrance of perfume. Our sense of smell is strongly linked with memory – nothing brings back memories (good and bad) like a smell. Mary and Martha knew the stench of death; they knew the smell of decay – the smell of a body wasting away, lifeless. And not just any body, but that stench was associated with the painful and heartbreaking loss of their brother. Their beloved brother. The next time they encounter this smell, in whatever context, whosever funeral they attend, whichever tomb they pass by, it will surely bring up the memory of the tears, the dust, the pain, and the anger. Mary knows Jesus is soon to die. The life extinguished, the body buried. She has taken Jesus at his word – this will happen, and it seems like it will happen soon as Jesus is preparing to enter Jerusalem.
But… and on this it all turns… Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are uniquely placed, of all the disciples and followers and crowds, they are uniquely placed to know that there is something different about death now that Jesus has walked amongst them. They have beheld a new thing – the undoing of death: the resurrection and the life. Lazarus heard the voice of the Messiah and walked out of that tomb. Death’s grip was loosed; the darkness of death’s tomb could not overcome the light of the world. Jesus too, when predicting his own death, has announced he will rise. And, for John, the surety of the resurrection means that Jesus’ crucifixion is not defeat but an enthronement, a raising up of a victorious man who is, in the moment of death, defeating death, undoing death, conquering death; o death where is your sting.
And so, Mary pours expensive perfume – worth a year’s wages for an average man of the time – lavishing it all over Jesus’ feet and filling the house with its fragrance, because she knows that Jesus’ death is unlike any other death and so it should not be associated with the stench that these people knew so well, the stench of despair, loss, hopelessness, the smell of no tomorrow. When people remember Jesus’ death, the scent that comes through is one of abundance, beauty, of an elegant fragrance worn for special occasions. Since Jesus will not decay in that tomb, since he will rise and open the path to the resurrection and the life for all, since he will conquer the powers of sin and death and so reconcile us all to God, his body – in this symbolic preparation for burial – should smell like life and life in abundance! And that scent, so beautiful and lavish, should fill the nostrils of all in attendance – behold, the Son of God is about to take away the sin of the world, the anointed is about to rob death of its sting, and plunder its halls, behold, listen to your senses, do you not perceive it?
Some do not. Judas is in this very same house – he has been a witness to the very same signs – he too heard Jesus command Lazarus to walk out of that tomb – yet he is constrained by his own lack of hope and imagination, his own selfishness and corruption. Judas cannot behold the new thing that God is doing in Jesus of Nazareth. And before we all pile on Judas it is worth asking of ourselves, are we open to God’s promise, “behold, I am about to do a new thing”?
Because God’s new thing often feels quite impossible: the deliverance of the captives out of Egypt, the deliverance of Israel out of exile, the making of rivers in the desert, the undoing of death. God’s new thing often requires us to put down or leave behind the old ways, the familiar ways, the muted expectations that come from spending too long operating out of scarcity, fear, privilege, or excess. Mary’s experience of tragic loss, only to encounter profound hope meant that her perfume – however treasured and valuable an asset – was an easy thing to part with if it meant properly recognising what Jesus was about to do. Saint Paul’s encounter with the living Christ, becoming gripped by the event of Christ’s death and resurrection made it all to easy for him to lay aside any privilege he had gained from his birth, education, and standing. To be “in Christ” became his driving motivation, because he had beheld the new thing God was doing and it struck him blind. He was seized, the new thing seized his entire person and he reoriented his life and values around it. God promises that new thing, and Jesus, Paul writes, Jesus makes us his own – and that is so we can get in on this new thing, so that we can be the new thing, be a resurrection people, become the righteousness of God.
Behold, God is about to do a new thing – we don’t always know what it looks like, but we know that it will be modelled after God’s history in the world: liberation out of slavery, deliverance out of exile, the provision in the wilderness, the redemption of the natural world, and the undoing of death… so keep an eye (or a nose) out for those kind of things, and trust that if you’re willing to hold loosely the things of old, God will hold you up, because in Christ, God has made a way for all of us to experience the resurrection and the life – and that kind of thing fills a household like the sweetest of fragrances.