There is something about the sense of smell’s influence on the brain that is eerie and strange and incredibly amazing. There is a link from fragrance to memory that is almost like magic.
The first begins like this: I like Tetley’s Strawberry Tea. Not because it tastes uncannily of strawberries, or because I have a keen attachment to fruit teas. Quite the opposite, in fact. The tea itself tastes and smells mostly of artificial strawberry. And there are really only two fruit teas that I have ever found myself to enjoy with any regularity: Pickwick’s Peach Tea and Tetley’s Strawberry Tea.
There is a very good reason for my keen sense of pleasure when I smell either of these teas. I am transported to a time and place every time I lift the cup of tea to my face. The smell of this particular strawberry tea takes me back in time to my cousin’s apartment just over 20 years ago when I was experiencing the frustrations and joys of learning to overcome language barriers and experiencing the other half of my culture and heritage after my family had moved to Hungary.
That Strawberry tea that we were offered was a cup of love, of calming down, and of spending a little time taking a break from the seemingly constant struggle to be understood.
Every time I sip this tea, all those memories come to the fore. And all my senses are turned to those visits and I my mind’s eye paints this incredibly vivid picture of the setting and the people.
The second example has to do with my grandfather. I was very close with my grandfather when I was growing up and almost all of my memories of him are incredibly fond ones. I remember that we had many conversations, of varying degrees of seriousness, but that I was always pleased to have his attention in matters that I was pondering at the time. He was a terrific hugger, had a gentle laugh that moved from his eyes to his mouth, and he smelled amazing.
Of tea and toast, soft cotton and soap, and of aftershave.
I think of Granddad often. I miss both of my grandparents very much.
There was a particular day when I was feeling really low. I was standing in front of an elevator and thinking about how much I was missing my friends and family as I was settling into a new job in a new city. The elevator doors opened and I stepped on to an empty elevator, lost in thought. A whole lot of change in a very short period of time, and I was sad and lonely. I pressed the button for the floor I needed, and the elevator doors closed.
I was feeling an overwhelming need for a hug as I waited for the elevator to start on its way. Suddenly, there was an incredibly strong smell that filled my nostrils as it wafted in from behind me:
My grandfather’s aftershave.
My mind’s eye immediately called his face to the fore. Smiling and laughing. Loving.
I calmed down. And as I stepped off the elevator, the scent disappeared and was gone.
I think about those memories whenever I hear today’s gospel reading.
The power of smell and its incredible tie to our brain’s memory.
I imagine that there are two smells that the followers of Christ never forgot. The smell of death. The smell of the dying and sick brought to Jesus in the hope of healing. The smell of death as Lazarus was invited back to the living from his resting place in the tomb. The smell of death as Jesus was lifted on the cross before the people, as Jesus was taken from the cross, cleaned, anointed, and laid in a tomb.
The other, I think, is of nard.
A rare perfume.
I was curious about what exactly nard was because the reading goes out of its way to name it as the main ingredient of the expensive perfume.
I discovered from Wikipedia that nard, or spikenard, or muskroot, is an essential oil that is made from a flowering plant of the Valerian family that grows in the Himalayas, Nepal, China, and India.
The oil, like many essential oils from that region has ancient ties to medicine in India, to perfumery in Egypt and Rome, and to religion in Israel. The Hebrew people used it as consecrated incense in the Jerusalem Temple. Dante’s Inferno makes mention of nard as part of a trio of funerary purification components: Frankincense, Myrrh, and Nard. It is well known to be antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory. Spikenard, has properties that encourage calmness – being soothing and relaxing when smelled or placed on the skin.
It smells earthy.
Like freshly exposed damp dirt and moss.
And as Mary used an ridiculously generous amount of this oil on Jesus’ feet, everything in the room was suddenly saturated with that smell.
And I like to think that every time those disciples moved through their world after Jesus had left them they might catch a whiff of nard every now and then. And they would be suddenly transported in their minds to this event where Jesus tells these followers that he is about to die. They would bring to mind one of the few times that they were together without all the other people seeking Jesus, hosted in a friend’s house, fed and sharing in each others company.
A bittersweet memory for a number of reasons, not the least of which come in the form of criticism.
Every good tale needs a complex character – someone you’re unsure if you should love or hate. In the Gospel story, Judas is that person. Through each of the four gospels we see very different portraits of his character: “…one who is playing his destined role in the crucifixion story to one who was a lying, scheming piece of nothing all along.” But I love Judas because I don’t really know what to make of him.
Judas is incredibly human.
Like all the other disciples have done since they agreed to follow Christ, Judas takes this moment to say something that certainly others were thinking.
Why waste such extravagance where there is a clear need in the poor?
“Throughout history and currently on television, the poor have been “objects” of pity to do fund raising, to win heaven, to calm guilty consciousness, to get publicity, to deduct taxes, to get rid of superfluous things, to feed with food alien to their cultures.” And perhaps most recently, we have heard in the news of the two homeless men who our current government gave one-way tickets to BC to, and most of the opinions for and against that action have been more or less hyper focused on our Premier’s character as we get closer to election day.
It is not the first or the last time a human being would use fake concern for the poor in order to bring attention to themselves or to a completely different agenda. The writer of John is intent on making a point of this interaction, and Jesus says:
“This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it.”
I would like to think that as Jesus went about the next few days of his remaining week of life, he could still smell the nard. In all of the chaos of entering Jerusalem, and being arrested, tried, and nailed to a cross, he could smell the nard. And it would call to mind being present with friends, spending last days together, palpably aware of the love that they all had for one another – calming and soothing away the human feelings of anxiety and fear. A personal reminder of some of God’s children whose lives would be completely changed by Christ’s death and resurrection.
There is something about the sense of smell’s influence on the brain that is eerie and strange and incredibly amazing. There is a link from fragrance to memory that seems to always be there to assure us, teach us something anew, and guide us into the future. Thanks be to God for that incredible gift. Amen.
Eliseo Pérez Álvarez. “Commentary on John 12:1-8.” Preach This Week, Working Preacher.org
D. Mark Davis. “Judas and Mary in Contrast.” Left Behind and Loving It.
Karoline Lewis. “Simultaneous Smells.” Dear Working Preacher, Working Preacher.org