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The Nose Knows

Lent 5, Common Lectionary Year C

John 12: 1-8

 © 2016 Rev Elisabeth R Jones

“Nothing revives the past so completely
as a smell that was once associated with it.”[1]

How very true!
The smell of Imperial Leather soap takes me right back
to my grandpa’s garden shed,
and the memories flow of stolen afternoons with him,
pruning roses, drowning slugs in beer,
plucking snails off the cabbages,
and the compulsory ‘cleaning up’ before heading in to tea.

We all have them, these memory provoking scents,
both good and bad.
Does the smell of maple syrup take you back
in a memory to Christmas breakfasts?
Does the smell of wood smoke conjure the memories
of family camping trips?
The smell of coal, or hot tar was guaranteed
to give my grandmother terrifying flashbacks
of the bombs dropping on Manchester during the War.

Apparently there’s a solid scientific reason why smell does this to us;
our olfactory sense, our emotion centres and memory processors all share closely networked real estate in our brain’s limbic region. [2]
Smell triggers, memory,
and the emotion that accompanied that past event.
Nabokov, the Russian born novelist puts it more poetically,
“Smells…[ can] make your heartstrings crack.”[3]

I have a hunch that the story of Lazarus’ death,
of Mary’s spikenard scented perfume,
find their way into the Gospel of John
through the emotional memories of someone who was there.
Not so much an eye witness, but someone whose nose knows,
and whose heartstrings crack at the memory.

We are usually spared the stench of death,
in our sanitized culture,
so the significance of Mary’s nard is lost on us.
Spikenard is a member of the valerian plant family,
and its scent is musty/tangy, and its essential oil form
it was particularly good at binding the aroma to whatever it touched.
It was almost exclusively used to anoint a body at the time of death.

Lazarus, only weeks earlier,
had probably been wrapped in linen soaked
in spikenard oil.
Everyone would recognize the smell,
including Jesus, Mary, Lazarus;

When Mary pulls off the cover of her jar,
what memories fill the room?
That room.
Memories of the grief, erased by a living Word,
“Lazarus, live!”
Was Mary hoping to do the same again?
As the shadows lengthened, the threats grew,
could this perfumed memory conjure up
another victory by Jesus over the senseless violent death
that stalked him?

Or maybe she was daring to say,
silently with poured perfume,
what everyone dreaded, the approach of death,
but no one dare say so?
This story is not mine, but a colleague’s
who writes of the time when her family gathered at her father’s hospital bed, where his recovery from surgery was failing.
The chatter had stopped,
the awkwardness had returned,
sporadic silence, stifled inaction.
And then, she writes “my sister ran out of the room,
to return a few moments later
with a bottle of hand lotion.
She poured the lotion onto her hands,
and warmed it before ever so gently rubbing
it into my dad’s tired , tortured limbs.
I have never forgotten… this gesture of tenderness, of farewell.
And every time I read this Gospel story,
the scent of nard becomes the scent of my sister’s lotion.” [4]
Death and love comingle with the anointing of costly perfume.

We have lived this story this winter.
As a community of Jesus’ disciples
We too have occupied the perfumed household between
Lazarus’ rising and Jesus’ death.
This story has become ours in ways we could not have imagined, nor wished for.
This house of God has been filled
with the perfume of flowers
blessing the death of a loved one,
with no less tenderness,
no less love than Mary’s spikenard anointing of her friend.
And the smell makes the heartstrings crack.
This is the place communities of faith
inhabit most uniquely, for pretty much nowhere
else does a community gather around death and life as we do.
And for some of us still, we live in the between time,
knowing that death is closer for a parent, a partner,
a beloved friend.
Some of us are aching to do that one more loving thing,
that one more act of devotion,
that pouring of love like petalled-perfume,
some anointing,
something, anything,to say
“I love you, life and death and beyond.”

Smell makes the heartstrings crack.

Before we crack, and break in despair,
this Gospel story isn’t over.
John has spiked our nostrils,
and our memories,
and our emotions
with nard;
death’s scent now hallowed with love and life.

And, one more time we will follow
these women whose
oiled hands will smooth the wearied limbs
of life poured out.
One more time we will follow them,
through the colourless edge of morning
to the guarded tomb, of the Crucified One.

And, one more time,
death’s stench is erased,
hallowed by nard’s new memory,
of death defeated.
“Scent of light and shadow,
stronger than death and burial,
that will fill the house of mind and heart
like a perfumed burst of
resurrection dawn.”[5]

There is no death.
Only life beyond death.


[1] Vladimir Nabokov, Mary

[2] Sentence is Matt Skinner’s.  Beautifully phrased, can’t improve on it!

[3] Cited by Matt Skinner, Working Preacher, Lent 5C 2010, quoting from Rachel Herz

[4] Janet Hunt, 2013.

[5] Andrew King, “The Anointing”

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