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.’
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Our sense of smell is very important to us. We use it as an in-built tool to help us predict and appreciate much of what we experience in our daily lives. Our sense of smell also plays a significant role in reminding us of experiences, people and places. Perhaps you can remember the smell of a shop you used to pass every day on your way to school. Perhaps you have a vivid memory of a smell you have always associated with a relative or friend with whom you are no longer in contact. Perhaps there is a particular smell that stirs memories you would rather not recall. Our sense of smell, a sense we so often take for granted, is very important to us.
The notion of Christ permeating the world like a strong smell that influences the way we live our daily lives is one that has been in existence for centuries. There is a traditional French Christmas carol which speaks of just this phenomenon: Quelle est cette odeur agréable? (usually translated as: ‘Whence is that goodly fragrance?’). Whilst it is not possible to date the beautiful folk tune that is linked with these words, we do know that the text was written in the 17th century. The notion of the all-pervading smell of Christ has been in existence for a very long time.
In today’s reading we hear of Judas’ anger at the ‘waste’ of a precious perfume: Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor? This ironic interjection by the one who was to betray Jesus can easily divert our attention away from the reality of the situation. Mary used the costly perfume to anoint Jesus, an anointing that would soon take on a tragic significance. The perfume which filled the house is also a symbol of the all-pervading presence of Christ in this world. No matter how hard some try to deny it Christ is everywhere.
In the coming days we will see Jesus brought to the point of human death, but still the odour of his sanctity will linger on. Then, after three days we will witness the finding of the empty tomb. We know from the gospel account of Jesus’ raising of his friend Lazarus, that there should have been a terrible stench as the tomb was opened. But that will not be the case. Rather than there being the terrible smell of death and defeat there will be the glorious odour of resurrection joy and victory over death.
As the horror of the next few days unfolds let us pray that all our senses may be engaged with the Jesus who gave himself over to human cruelty in order that we might all be forgiven and brought into the glorious light of his resurrection.