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The uncomfortable smell of death and of new life

GOSPEL: John 12:1-8

3Mary 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. 4But 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?” (Read the whole passage)

It must have been almost hard to breathe.

The smell of the perfume as it filled the noses of all present at the celebratory meal. We all know someone who wears too much perfume, whether its that strange aunt in the family, or lately it seems to be teenage boys wearing too much axe cologne. Smells can overpower us like no other sense can. And certain scents can trigger memories like nothing else. They can remind us more powerfully than a picture of past events, places or persons. The smell of chlorine can take you right back to that first time swimming in an indoor pool. Or the smell of pine trees can take you back to that most memorable Christmas.

The smell today, the perfume that anoints Jesus’ feet cannot be taken lightly or overlooked. A pound of perfume is not a delicate scent, and that seems to be Mary’s point. On this day, Jesus, his good friend Lazarus, and the disciples are being treated to a celebratory meal. Lazarus has been raised from the dead, and now it is time to gather and celebrate. Martha, as usual, is serving the dinner. Martha is giving thanks for what just happened at the tomb. But Mary choose a different act of gratitude. She wants to express her deep gratitude and her love for Jesus. Its the kind of emotional display that makes most of us uncomfortable, like two lovers passionately kissing in public.

As Mary anoints Jesus feet, and then wipes them with her own hair, the rest of the guests at the party were probably feeling awkward. Washing feet was something that servants do. And using one’s hair as the cloth… well, that wasn’t normal. Mary’s act is a extravagant and wild and passionate as it seems. Probably something that could have been saved for a private moment with Jesus.

In the midst of this beautiful moment, this act of love and gratitude that Mary is giving to Jesus, Judas pipes up. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”

Judas is that grumpy uncle who needs to ruin every family meal. Judas cannot handle this emotionally deep, meaning rich moment. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the display of affection, or perhaps as John suggests, he has other intentions for the money. Whatever Judas’ reasons, he is deflecting. Trying to move on, pivot away from the scene. He tries to make the moment foolish and wasteful. Judas tries to make beauty about practicality, almost stealing away Mary’s extravagant love, diminishing her by rebuking her feelings. By responding to love and gratefulness with righteous indignation.

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We all know this moment. We have lived this moment. We have been there when a family member or co-worker or church member shows up with a passionate idea or shares a dream or displays deep emotion and vulnerability…. only to be shot down by someone, maybe even us, because we cannot handle the moment. We know what it looks like to be shushed or dismissed or shamed because someone else cannot handle the risk or the change or the feelings.

Judas’s ruining of the moment, and our experiences of the same stem from a desire to protect and control. Judas is uncomfortable with Mary’s act, Mary is outside the comfort zone, this is something wild and untamed. Its extravagant and passionate. This is not safe or proper. This is not a good use of resources, it is a waste. Never mind that is overwhelming and we don’t want to deal with what we are feeling.

Our desire to keep from being overwhelmed, to keep our feelings and experiences manageable and safe often push us to put pragmatism and practicality ahead of people. Judas can’t handle Mary’s emotions, so he only sees dollars being poured on Jesus feet. We often get bogged down by the resources being expended on our family, on our neighbours, on the church, on ourselves. Judas doesn’t see that what Mary is doing for Jesus is worth more than any amount of money. Often we find it hard to see that the families, friends, neighbours and ministries that we give our time, effort and money to are worth more than any amount of money. Sometimes we are so consumed with the bottom line that we neglect ourselves in the process.

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For five weeks we have been immersed the season of Lent. Immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells. The feel and smell of Ashes marked our heads. We have kept from singing Alleluias, we have sung Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy, Lord have Mercy instead. And on this final Sunday before Palm Sunday, the smell of death enters into our sanctuary.

There is pound of pure nard on Jesus feet. Perfume that certainly was used by Mary and Martha to anoint their brother and of course the same smell that wafted our of the tomb when JEsus commanded the stone be rolled away. The perfume is used to keep the smell of death at bay… yet often the thing meant to hide something can become a symbol of what it is covering up. The perfume that is supposed to keep the stench away is the sign of its presence, the perfume is the smell of death. The smell of the tomb brought to the table.

No wonder Judas is uncomfortable.

And Jesus does not miss the symbol either.

Mary has anointed his feet with the smell of Good Friday, the scent that is slowly building as we get closer to Holy Week.

Jesus does not see waste. Jesus sees love, lavish, wild, untamed love. Jesus sees the future.

“Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”.

Mary is not anointing a king, or prophet. Mary is anointing a friend, teacher and son, who will be soon prepared for burial on Friday evening, and Jesus is reminding his disciples and friends one more time that all of this. This is the thing that Judas is trying not to feel and confront.

Death.

The ministry, the parables, the miracles, the teaching in synagogues, the traveling the countryside. It has all been leading to this smell, leading to death.

Judas and the others cannot stay with the smell, they cannot stay in the moment or live in the symbol. Just like we so often can’t stay in the overwhelming feelings.

Yet Jesus knows that this moment isn’t just about death, this moment is a foretaste of God’s future. God’s mission is heading towards its zenith. When the time comes for Jesus the corpse to be put in the ground, God will be accomplishing something new, something never seen. Something glimpsed as Lazarus stepped out of his tomb, promises fulfilled when Jesus steps out of his. God is about to turn the world upside, to bring new meaning to creation. Preparing for burial will no longer be preparing for death, but for New Life.

Here in this perfume filled room, where passionate impulsive Mary has shown her love and given thanks in her way, Jesus gives the whole world a new sign, new meaning. God’s future is now about us. Jesus burial is about us. On Good Friday Jesus will be anointing the world with New Life. As Jesus dies, we will be made alive.

And while Judas and the disciples, we while we struggle to stay in the moment, while we all end up betraying and denying Jesus…

Jesus stay present. Present with Mary, present with death, present with love.

Jesus sees the beauty of Mary’s gesture of love and Jesus tells us that God’s greatest gesture of love is coming. Its coming on the cross of Good Friday, its coming in familiar smells. On crosses and in empty tombs, in the waters of baptism, and in bread and wine.

And so as Mary anoints Jesus feet today, as the perfume fills the room, Jesus stays in the moment and keeps us there to, no matter how much Judas wants to deflect… and Jesus reminds us that this moment is not just death but love.

Love in perfume that anoints Jesus feet,

love on the cross,

love buried in the tomb.

And after three days,

love that bursts forth,

uncontrolled, untamed,

wild, passionate, extravagant.

Love that we can see, touch, taste

and of course,

love that we can smell.

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