Smelling Memory

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (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.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

John 12:1-8; Text for Sunday April 7, 2019

Memories are tagged by senses as well as words.  The sight of a particular blue, the sound of a musical note, the feel of a knitted blanket, the taste of a familiar dish.  Of all of these sense-triggers, smell goes deepest, evokes the most.  The smell of bread baking, of beef stew simmering.  The library smell of old books, wood and wax. The milky smell of a baby.   The fall tang of wood smoke.  The sharp green of fresh-cut grass.  Hyacinths honey-sweet and lavender astringent and blue.

What did Mary remember when she uncorked that perfume?  What did she remember as she anointed Jesus’ feet, wiped them clean with her unbound hair?  Did Mary think of Lazarus her brother, so lately dead and buried?  Did Mary think of Martha, her sister, who had called Jesus Messiah and Lord?  Did Mary think of Jesus ordering the stone to be rolled back in spite of Martha’s warning of the foul smell of four-days-past death?  Did Mary remember that what had emerged from the tomb was her living, walking grave-cloth-bound brother, coming out in response to Jesus’ call? Did Mary remember what those grave-clothes smelled like, when Lazarus emerged? Had she clung to her brother through the musky-sweet scent of decay? Or had he smelled instead like new-born life?

The whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

What did Mary remember at the end of it all, whenever after she smelled the fragrance of the nard?  Did she remember Lazarus sitting host again to the one who had hosted his return to life.  Did she remember Martha paused in the doorway, bringing in the bread and wine, smile of joy turning into an O of surprise?  Did she remember Judas’s question?  Did she remember the rest of them gathered there?

Or did she only remember him?  Did she only remember the hem of his robe and the shape of his feet as she washed them in perfume and wiped them with her hair?  Did she only remember somehow knowing that this would be one of the last times he would be with them.  Did she only remember that this was her last time to make her thank-offering for one life returned, her gift-offering for another death coming?  

Six days before the Passover.  The third day after that.  Whenever after Mary smelled the perfume, what did she remember of the love-offering she had given? What did she experience of the love-offering she had received?

revised from 2010

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