This year my experience of the Lenten season (the 40 days + Sundays period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday) has been unlike any other. It has felt less somber, and more energizing. I feel a simmering sense of anticipation that will not let me stop in the stillness of reflection on my need for God’s grace. That grace already feels too present, too alive, to even be able to contemplate what life would be like without it. I don’t know if I am really experiencing Lent as I am supposed to, although I can’t really complain.
An important element of this difference has been the recent development in my own life. After a long (very long) process of discernment, I have taken the first steps toward pursing ordained ministry in the Lutheran Church. These steps have had a more profound impact on my faith than I had expected. My relationship with Jesus has always been central to my identity, and I have always seen my professional life as an expression of my vocational calling, so I suppose I expected the most recent movement to be just another stage of the journey. In some ways it is, but it is also profoundly different.
Growing up evangelical, my faith was first and foremost personal, even when it pushed me to action on behalf of justice and care for others. Suddenly I have this whole new perspective on my faith as being For Others. When I interact with a given text or encounter a new theological perspective I can’t just wonder what this means for my faith. I feel both a responsibility and an opportunity to move past the question of “how does this speak to me?” and into the much less certain query of “how can I make space for others to hear what speaks to them (even if it is different than what I hear)?”
For a woman who still often craves certainly, this new perspective on my task can feel unfamiliar and destabilizing, but I think it is also an essential part of the grace-filled way that I am experiencing Lent this year. There is space for so many experiences of Jesus. It is frustrating but also beautiful, and I get to be part of opening up those spaces, rather than defining and controlling them.
That is what happened when I sat down to write a reflection on the story of Mary washing Jesus’ feet in John 12 for my church’s Wednesday service last week. I found space.
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John 12:1-8 [Translation: Common English Bible]
“Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
Can you smell the heavy scent of nard? Inhabiting the air with a call to pay attention. A scent that will not be ignored. Evocative. Pungent. Compelling. Can you feel it swirling around you like a clinging veil? Can you close your eyes and let your mind melt into the mist of memory?
They say that scent, more than any of the other senses, is tied to memory. An ephemeral hint in the air – a familiar spice, a food, a flower… a perfume – they all can pull us with tremendous power. They can transport us back into a different time and place that captures our attention because it is important to us. Whether that association binds us in irrational fear, or explodes inside us with unconstrained joy, the scent is what moves us, pulls us, brings us back into a moment that lives forever in our sense memory, because of its importance.
But what makes the moment important, what that memory means? The scent alone does not tell us that. We bring the meaning with us.
So, when the strong scent of nard invades our memories, what meaning does it bring?
To some this is a scent of Waste.
If I had only offered my tribute in a reasonable proportion,then it could have been acceptable. After all, I had much for which to thank the teacher. He was the one who had restored my brother to life after days in the grave. It was quite natural for me to seek some way to demonstrate my gratitude. We were a family of some means, and so some small extravagance was understandable.
But three-quarters of a pound of pure nard? – poured out with no limit, no consideration of the other uses to which it could be put. A year’s wages in value. Just think what could be done with such a resource. There are real needs – the pressing kinds of needs that should take priority over sentiment and extravagant demonstrations. In the face of real, practical uses for such wealth… to spill it out in such a profligate way is shocking.
Yes – to many, focused on the scarcity of resources, this pouring out of scent smells like a waste.
To others, this is a scent of Shame.
This may be the version of my story most familiar to you. Luke told the story this way, and for some reason it seems to fire the imaginations of many gospel readers of later generations.
The sinful woman. The woman so weighed down with the shame of her life that she could no longer hold it in. The rules and social niceties meant little to her anyhow, so she laid them aside as she had long ago forsaken any claim to moral living. Abandoning discretion, she poured out her perfume as she poured out her tears. Nothing else mattered. The pain of her sin broke all constraints and her shame spilled out – an uncomfortable display to scandalize the watching judges.
Yes, to many, focused on the binding up of sin, this pouring out of scent smells just like shame.
But to others, this is a scent of intimacy.
This scent means stunning closeness. For in scent, which must be near to be perceived, which never can be shared at the safe distance of the heavenly throne, we find a whole new meaning of Emmanuel: a God so truly with me I can touch him. I can pour my precious offering not just at his feet, but on them. A can let down my hair, a private, vulnerable act and touch him in the tenderest anointing. A touch that speaks of total trust, assurance that my God will welcome me just as I am.
And so, to those who long for closeness with their Lord, this pouring out of scent smells sweetly of intimacy.
And yet to others, One at least, this is a scent of death.
As I sat near, the nard still clinging to my hands, He named my act. “This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it.”
It was an affirmation of my right, a declaration that I’d not transgressed, but rather done the prophet’s and the mourner’s work in one. And yet, how hard that was to hear. I wanted to anoint my Jesus as my prophet, priest, and king. I wanted to pour out my extravagant offering as a pure witness to his unlimited worth. A worth that could NOT die.
But, perhaps I knew. Perhaps I had understood somewhere below my conscious thought what was to come. Perhaps the Spirit worked in me to recognize the frailty of this body I could touch – the painful, wrenching consequence of incarnation. Perhaps, my soul did know my act for what it was. As I slowly rubbed the burial balm into his skin, perhaps I knew the grace of offering this small comfort to my Lord.
Hard as it was to hear, I understand.
To the One who knew all of the roles for which he was anointed, this pouring out of scent smelled strongly of death.
But I too can smell the nard, can feel it dripping from my hair, can see it shining on his skin. I close my eyes and breath and am transported back into a golden, shining moment of pure love.
For Love is what the scent of nard communicates to me. The meaning of that powerful scent memory takes me back into a moment where I knew the heart of love.
Love that is unrationed
Love that is unashamed
Love that is uninhibited
Love that is oh, so very alive.
That is the Love I felt beneath my fingertips, and dried with my hair. That is the Love at whose feet I sat to learn, and the Love whom I followed to the cross. That is the Love who stared his own death in the face, and still smiled at me as I poured out my offering of nard.
Can you smell it? I know that I will never forget.