St Brendan’s-by-the-Sea, Warnbro
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Lent 5, April 3, 2022
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.
Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them[a] with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 ‘Why was this perfume not sold for a year’s wages and the money given to the poor?’ 6 (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.) 7 Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
Hear the Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
One of the amazing things about dogs is their sense of smell. Some scientists say that their smell is between ten and one hundred thousand times more sensitive than our ability to detect odours. A vast portion of a dog’s brain is given over to interpreting smell. By contrast, our dominant sense is sight. We make a picture of the world based on what we see; a dog’s world is constructed from smells.
You can tell I’ve been watching the program on ABC-TV about dogs!
Even so, for human beings, smell can be overwhelming If there is a strong smell, it seems like it is everywhere around us. As a child, I remember the eggs our chooks laid on the farm. We couldn’t use all of them at once, so we smeared them with Ke-Peg and put them aside for later… sometimes too much later. When you crack open a rotten egg, that nasty smell of hydrogen sulphide, rotten egg gas, fills the whole space. You can’t get away from it. And molecules of hydrogen sulphide stick around in the nose, and even when the rotten egg itself has long gone, hours later you can still smell the gas.
An all-pervasive smell like rotten egg gas gives us a little idea of what a dog’s smell is like.
This morning’s gospel begins and ends with the stink of death. One thing we remember from when Jesus arrived to raise Lazarus from the dead, he had been dead four days and ‘there was a stench.’ (John 11:39 NRSV)
The smell of death, of decomposing bodies, is one of the smells that you can’t escape. It’s everywhere in the place where you are. It sticks to your clothes. It lingers in your nostrils for hours. It is a distressing smell. To add to the nastiness of the smell, the circumstances when we experience that smell are likely to be disturbing in themselves. This smell is an occupational hazard for palliative care nurses and first responders – and clergy too!
We all obviously want to stay clear of that smell. We bury or cremate the dead before they begin to smell. It’s hard to stay in the presence of the stench of death. It’s hard even to talk about this smell – or to listen to me talk about it! And it may have been hard for Lazarus’ friends to stay near the resuscitated Lazarus – they would recall that smell.
At the end of the gospel reading, we return to the smell of death – Jesus’ death. The place where the Romans crucified people must have smelled like an abattoir. There was blood and gore, fear and vomit. There were the bodies of those crucified in the preceding days. Gruesome, awful. A place to stay away from, to avoid at all costs.
It’s difficult enough to think about it, let alone be there, as were Mary the Mother of Jesus, and John, and the other Mary and just a few other disciples. Only a few could stick it out. Death produces a horrible stink.
But could there be a perfume, a pleasant smell, strong enough to counteract the smell of death? Mary thinks so. She spreads half a litre of spikenard, Sweet Cecily, some call it, on Jesus’ feet. It’s a huge amount of perfume, costing about $60,000 in our money, a year’s wages. And scholars think Mary and her family were not rich. Martha herself is serving the meal, not a slave. They couldn’t throw money around. 300 denarii was a lot of money.
She rubs the ointment into Jesus’ feet with her hair, releasing even more aroma. John tells us, ‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’
It’s an extraordinarily generous gift.
And think too about foot-washing at a dinner. Mary could get to his feet because Jesus was reclining Roman style; his bare feet were sticking over the end of the divan. But people in the Middle East washed their own feet. Only slaves would wash someone else’s feet.
So, Mary washed Jesus’ feet, taking the part of a slave. She washes them with a hugely expensive ointment and wipes his feet with her hair. So, Mary’s love for Jesus starts so close, so intimately, and expands to fill the very air itself.
Because that’s what this story is about. The extraordinary story of a man raised from the dead, and the extraordinary love of the man who raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus really does bring life. And Mary, for one, gets it. She realises how extraordinarily generous Jesus is as he shares his life – with Lazarus, with Mary, with everyone. Life is a precious gift, and the one who gives life in abundance is a precious giver.
In that light, Mary’s anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume makes sense. Mary responds to Jesus giving life to her family by pouring out to Jesus her love and gratitude.
This morning’s Gospel recalls Moses saying there is a choice. We can choose life, or we can choose death. (Deuteronomy 13:19).
Think of Judas. John paints him as greedy, a liar, a traitor and a hypocrite. Judas’ thinking about giving is back to front: Judas thinks that giving money to the poor proves you love them. It doesn’t.
But loving the poor and expressing that love by giving money or clothing or food or opportunity, that’s the way to life. That’s the choice that Jesus affirms.
Mary, unlike Judas, chooses life. She thanks God for his goodness by spreading love around; love for Jesus first; love that comes from the depth of her heart, love that tries to match the overwhelming generosity of Jesus towards her. We can choose life. We are one of those at table with Jesus, sharing communion, so our choice is clear.
Our culture teaches us to hold back, not to give too much of ourselves away. It teaches us to hold back by judging others, instead of just letting them be themselves in Christ.
Our culture believes there is a finite supply of love and if we give away too much love, we will run out. But Mary shows us that the opposite is true: that if we give love, it will spread and multiply. Like Mary we can love generously, love from a full heart, love without borders, without judgement, just let our love for Jesus spread and ‘fill the whole house.’
Saint Paul writes, ‘And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ (Ephesians 5:2 ESV). Just imagine the combined aroma of our grateful generosity to Christ. This church would become an even more beautiful place, a beloved community…
‘For we are the aroma of Christ to God…’ Saint Paul again. (2 Corinthians 2:15 ESV) We are already that aroma, so let us continue to spread love so powerfully that not only dogs can detect it, but human beings cannot help but experience our love, God’s love, permeating the world.
The print of Mary anointing Jesus comes from the
Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.