Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 17 March 2013: Year C, Fifth Sunday of Lent
The fragrance of love
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Of all the senses, perhaps the sense of smell is the most mysterious. You can walk into a house full of old-fashioned furniture and the smell of polish takes you back to your granny’s. And we’ve spoken to the children about the smell of romance- smelly stuff is big business. In the Eastgate Centre, Boot’s and Debenham’s have what seems like acres of floor space devoted to perfume and deodorant. Smells affect us in strange ways.
Nowadays we live a rather deodorised existence. I’m sure that if we could go back in time to Palestine in Jesus’ day the smell would almost overpower us. It’s a hot climate, and most people work on the land. They walk everywhere. No wonder they wanted to wash their feet when they arrived at the end of a long journey. And so perhaps we can begin to understand why one way of showing your love for someone would be to pour perfume over their feet.
But the setting and the characters in this story also bring to mind another kind of smell. John’s Gospel places this incident at Bethany: ‘the home of Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead… Lazarus was one of those who were sitting at the table with Jesus’ (John 12.1,2). It hasn’t been so long beforehand that Jesus last visited his friend Lazarus. Jesus had been sent word that Lazarus was ill, but by the time he got there Lazarus was dead- and buried four days before. For it was the custom, as it still is in the Middle East, to bury people at the latest the day after they died. Jesus arrived and wept with those who were mourning his friend’s death. But then he went out to place of burial- a rock tomb, which was often what was used. When he asked for the stone to be taken away, Martha, the sister of Lazarus, objects: ‘There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried for four days!’ And there is the pragmatic reason why people were buried for four days. For the smell of death is not a pleasant smell. I know- I once worked as a hospital porter, and sometimes we had to transport dead bodies to the morgue in the middle of the night. Even with modern refrigeration, still there is an unmistakable smell. Yet the tomb of Lazarus was opened, and Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead.
So there is Lazarus, sitting at the table, hosting Jesus in his home, when this incident with Mary and the perfume takes place. She pours it out, wipes it with her hair (a very suggestive detail), and John tells us that ‘the sweet smell of the perfume filled the whole house’. It’s as if the smell of death has been wiped out. But then Jesus says, ‘Let her keep what she has for the day of my burial’. He’s referring, of course, to the custom of using perfume and sweet-smelling spices on a dead body- again, the pragmatic thing to do in a hot climate. So in the midst of a party celebrating Lazarus’ return, Jesus reintroduces the subject of death- his own death.
Is Jesus a bit morbid? Why would he want to talk about death at time like this. For it’s certainly still bad manners to talk about death in polite company, isn’t it. It is the last taboo- the subject we shy away from.
While I was a probationer, my supervising minister and I often talked about funerals (as you do!). One idea he had for us to get into the subject was that I should write my own funeral service, as an exercise, to help me think about the issues. But I never got round to it! It’s like those people who never get round to making a will. We all know that death is inevitable, but we don’t do much about it. For many people, making a will seems to confront them with the reality of their own death, but I wish more people would do it, for I know from experience how a will can make life lot easier for those who remain. It can be your last gift to your loved ones. But we avoid it. We pretend we are going to live for ever. We say that we ought to enjoy life, but the truth is, we don’t want to face up to the fact that one day we will die.
So, in today’s Gospel story, is Jesus going to the other extreme? Mary anoints him with perfume- an extravagant way to show her devotion to him. And in our world of Calvin Kline and those nice ladies in white suits who try to get you to try their wee bottles in Boots, we can imagine that Mary is using the perfume almost in a sexual way to show her love. However, when Judas complains about Mary’s extravagance, Jesus answers him by referring to the other use of perfume, the Middle Eastern use. His answer is perhaps best translated as, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial’ (John 12.7, NRSV- n.b. footnote).
Jump forward to Easter Day. What were the women doing, as they went to the cave tomb where Jesus body lay? Mark’s Gospel tells us that they went with ‘spices to… anoint the body of Jesus’ (Mark 16.1). In Jesus’ day, perfume was used to prepare a body for burial- it wasn’t just for romance, it was also part of the ritual of death.
Mary anointed Jesus’ feet as a sign of her devotion to him- an extravagant, sensual sign her love for him. For Mary is bursting with joy and life, celebrating the man who brought her brother Lazarus back to the land of the living. But Jesus reads a different, more ominous meaning into her actions. Without realising it, Mary has prophesied that Jesus will soon die. In the middle of this lively party, Jesus speaks about his death.
Is Jesus being morbid, or what? And yet, as the old prayer puts it ‘in the midst of life, we are in death’ (Book of Common Prayer; ODQ, 139.9). Perhaps once people were once more aware of death. Nowadays, we don’t quite feel that death is part of life in quite the same way. For example, once the death of children was something which was tragically common. After all, not long ago many people in Glasgow lived in terrible slums. It was said that in the 1930’s, Govan had more people per acre than the Necropolis. Families were squeezed into tiny flats, and very often they would even have to share the beds. And all that overcrowding led, of course, to terrible health problems. So it wasn’t so uncommon for a child to wake up in the morning to discover that their little brother or sister had died during the night. ‘In the midst of life, we are in death’. No-one would want to go back to that sort of situation. Thank goodness, that in a few generations, we have moved on to a situation where the death of a child is something much rarer. But it does mean, for example, that I am quite often asked by parents about what to do with their children when there is a funeral. When granny dies, do you take the children to the funeral or not? It’s very difficult, of course, with children in a situation like that. And so parents have to make a choice, which balances the need to protect children from unnecessary distress with the realisation that, at some stage, we all of us have to face up to the reality of death. In our culture, death tends to happen out of sight and out of mind- in hospital rather than in the home. That does mean that we are perhaps a bit less able to handle it and to talk about it- it is out of sight and out of mind.
Sometimes religious people are accused of being fixated with death- and it looks as though Jesus is guilty of this here. Why should a man in the prime of life- especially one with devoted admirers who will cover his feet in perfume- go on about his death like this? In fact, Jesus almost seems to court death. At this point, he is about to enter the city of Jerusalem, and he will do so in a very audacious way. He will ride in on a donkey, as if her were the Messiah, the saviour of Israel. He will cause a sensation, for crowds of people will greet him in the middle of the most important religious festival of the year. He is bound to upset the authorities. He will have the Roman governor worried that the city is even more volatile than ever, and the religious leaders worried that their authority might slip away. Jesus is planning in a high-risk game, which could well end in his death. Is he crazy, morbid, or what?
I don’t think Jesus was morbid- I just think that he was realistic. He was facing up to the inevitable. For Jesus is unflinching in the face of his own death, and that’s what makes the story of his last days so powerful.
Today’s Old Testament reading recalls the central event of Israel’s religious history- the escape from Egypt, as Moses took them across the Red Sea. But after the Israelites got through safely, God destroyed the army of Egypt, as the prophet recalls: ‘He led a might army to destruction, an army of chariots and horses. Down they fell, never to rise, snuffed out like the flame of a lamp’ (Isaiah 43.17). The Exodus gave new life to the Israelites, for they were set free from oppression. But meant death to their enemies, the Egyptians. Life and death come together.
In the New Testament, the central events are the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t being morbid when he spoke about his coming death- he was being realistic. The way things were going, he was going to end up dead, for the crowds, the religious leaders, the Roman military rulers would all eventually conspire against him. And so the cross, a symbol of death- an instrument of execution- would become the symbol of Christianity.
There is very little in the Bible that is sentimental. For the Bible does not flinch from harsh realities. Israel could not be free without the destruction of Egypt’s army, and we would not be free without the death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus died, defeated, powerless, helpless- although that was not the end for him. He died before he could rise to life again; there can be no Easter without Good Friday. And because Jesus was prepared to face death, we can have life. He did not stay in his cave-tomb, but burst out, defeating death, bringing life not just for him, but the possibility of new life for us all.
So Christianity is not a death-fixated, morbid religion- although it does not shirk harsh realities. It’s really all about life- for Jesus said, ‘I have come that you might have life- life in all its fullness’ (John 10.10); which means that the person who believes in Christ has a full life here and now: a Christian is someone who has life in all it’s fullness. And we are called to help others to find life in its fullness. I rather like the Christian Aid slogan: ‘We believe in life before death’. For as Christians we should be doing what we can to help those for whom death is all too near. So Christians work make sure that mother don’t have to watch their children die because of poverty. They visit the sick and comfort the dying. And we try to bring to hope to those who cannot see anything in their life that is worth living for. For we are to live lives which should smell of God’s love, even when the stench of death is all around. All this we do in the name of he who said, as he stood at the grave of his friend Lazarus: ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (John 17.25). As followers of Christ, we believe that death does not- and should not- have the last word. As St Paul wrote of our Christian hope: ‘Death is swallowed up; victory is won!’ ‘O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’ But thanks be to God! God gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15.54b-55, 57). Amen to that!
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo