The perfume incident

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. Jn. 12.3 NRSVA

Some years ago I came to a church vestry. It was November-ish. There was a distinct smell of spruce and candle-wax in the air, and some sad violin music could be heard in the background. ‘Has anyone died,’ I asked. ‘It’s the First Advent,’ was the reply. Yet the aromas in the air were so funeral.

The sense of smell speaks to us and guides us sometimes even better than the sense of sight. You know how the sense of smell speaks to you when in the street you hear the freshly baked bread, or come to a place which smells nice and fresh?  Supermarkets use this to lure people in.

Few aids of memory are stronger than the sense of smell. Our nose seems to be connected to our memory bank very directly. E. Thompson Seton (Two Little Savages, 1903:44) mentions that the native Americans would keep a fragrant piece of wood or grass to remember an event or experience.

Mary pours expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, and the fragrance fills the house. To some, it is a source of gladness. To Judas, it is a source of showing off and grumbling. What is it to Jesus himself? A reminder of death, the exit from this world. A sign of worship, which he accepts. He is God about to die for His people.

Mary’s worship fills her house with fragrance, for all to see.

What is the scent of your worship?

There are times in the church year that are high points, aromas for all to see. And those seasons are also connected with the way of Christ, to following him to the best of one’s ability.

Advent says to us – make a way for the Lord, and smells of construction.

Christmas and Epiphany show us the Child Jesus and say – he is the Way, God come to live among us The smells of hay, frankincense and myrrh tell us that.

In Lent we hear the words of God, saying, I will make the way, a new way, and the scent of incense and bitter herbs is in the air.

Good Friday smells of darkness, blood and a brief stop in the Way, a gateway. On Good Friday we understand the harsh smell of grave, myrrh and all things passing.

Easter is the time when Jesus says – I am the Way. We sense lilies and fresh mountain spring in the air.

On Ascension Day we see him Walking the way, ascending to His Father. The wind rising in the distance is what we might smell, or sunshine, but our heads are in the clouds.

And at Pentecost, we receive the imperative to Walk His Way. The smell of fire and smoke and promise is all about us.

This is one of the ways the worship space can be translated into human senses. The height, the breadth, the light, the surfaces, the smells, the sounds, the presences, the pre-sets: the expected and the unexpectedly experienced.

What is the fragrance, the scent, the nose of your worship, your way of following in the footsteps of Jesus?

Mary brought a pound of precious perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet. Was she very rich? Probably not. What was her motivation then? She already had the better part of the following Jesus. She had already seen her brother, Lazarus, resurrected from the dead. Her heart was full of worship. Her heart was full of love. For a friend, a teacher, for her God about to die. She did not wait till the funeral though – she went and showed her love to Jesus while He was still alive and reachable.

The fragrance of the perfume filled the whole house.

What houses does the aroma of your worship fill?

We organise the worship space according to some rules. There is a focal place, the altar, usually where all people can see it. God does not need an altar, we do. There are liturgical vestments, incense, and all sorts of things that openly tell everyone that this is the worship space with worship rules. Here we worship God this way. God does not need the worship rules, we do. But worship is much more than what happens in a church, any church on a Sunday. Worship spills outside and beyond the limits, a church building puts on the people of God. The worship service flavours our week, it assigns the time a fragrance, but it is up to us to carry it out, into the world. It is essential to be part of the Sunday worship: it gives us strength and encouragement to carry on.

Like Mary, we bring what we have, to Jesus’ feet. And he lets us.

What is the perfume you bring to Jesus’ feet?

spikenard plant
spikenard plant

Throughout the church year, our house is filled with aromas of worship. Walking the Way of Christ, we follow our nose – from the green smell of the Advent wreath to the bitter scent of the memory of His death for us, to the victorious fragrance of the lilies as we celebrate His resurrection. Wrapped in the fires of the Pentecost, do we wear the fragrance of God’s Kingdom so that it is attractive to those who only sense it, not knowing it deeply just yet? Does the worship smell of a funeral? Does it smell of awe? What is the smell of prayer?

What is the scent of your worship?

Which house does the fragrance of your worship fill?

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