From the Rev. Joe Hensley, Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | 5th Sunday in Lent, Year C, March 13, 2016
Here is question for you: What does Christian discipleship smell like? We spend more time thinking about what following Jesus looks like or sounds like, maybe what it feels like, and maybe even what it tastes like. We rarely, if ever, consider what discipleship, what walking in the way of Christ, smells like. Some of us might say it smells like a potluck feast where all are welcome and no one goes hungry. Some of us might say it smells like a dusty road where we are called to wander in search of fellow pilgrims. On happy days, discipleship might smell like Easter lilies or Christmas greenery. There are lots of possibilities. I think, though, that the smell of discipleship is something that wakes us up, that surprises us. It is a powerful aroma that opens our spiritual nostrils to breathe in the Holy Spirit.
When I was a boy, we sometimes made a slight detour on the way to church in order to pick up an older man named Mr. Horton for Sunday services. I do not know whether my parents were assigned this pastoral care ministry or whether they took it upon themselves. I do not know if they considered it to be part of their discipleship of Jesus to offer this man a ride. All I knew then was that when Mr. Horton got into the car, the smell of his hair cream would nearly knock me out. To my young and sensitive nose, it seemed so strong, and once the car door was closed, the intense perfume of it made it impossible for me to concentrate on anything else. Mr. Horton would sit in the front seat of our Oldsmobile, my brother and mother and I in the back. I don’t really remember Mr. Horton’s face, but I have this distinct memory of the back of Mr. Horton’s head, his white hair neatly combed and stuck in place. I wondered how anything on earth could smell so strong. I could not wait to get to church so that we could open the car door and escape.
In today’s Gospel story, I wonder if those gathered for a dinner in honor of Jesus were also squirming to get away. It is an uncomfortable scene, when we consider the etiquette of the day. Mary of Bethany, Mary whose brother Lazarus has recently been raised from the dead by Jesus, Mary whose sister Martha complains in another Gospel story that she doesn’t help with the chores, this Mary (not to be confused with Mary the mother of Jesus or Mary Magdalene) puts everyone in an uncomfortable position as she demonstrates her love for Jesus. Remember that in 1st century Palestine it was taboo for a woman to touch a man in public. Remember that it was scandalous for a Jewish woman to display her hair for everyone to see. It WAS ordinary hospitality for a guest to be received by a servant who would wash and perhaps rub ointment on the feet. So imagine how awkward those at the dinner would have felt when Mary, who might have been a woman of some social status, bends down and rubs ointment on the rabbi’s feet. And then she wipes them with her hair. Her hair. This sensual and intimate gesture would certainly have attracted everyone’s attention. It would be pretty scandalous today. One of those times when people are trying not to look but can’t help themselves. And then there is the smell.
Mary doesn’t use just any ointment to rub Jesus’ feet. She takes a jar of nard. Nard was a very expensive balm often used to anoint dead bodies for burial. The strong perfume would cover up the smell as the body began to decay. Nard was imported from India. It was precious. And Mary takes about a cup and half of it, worth about a year’s wages for the average laborer, and rubs it all on Jesus’ feet. The smell fills the whole house. It probably made Mr. Horton’s hair cream seem tame in comparison.
We all know that smells are powerful. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a smell is worth a thousand pictures. A smell can bring back so many memories and images all at once. To this day when I get a whiff of a certain kind of hair product, it brings back the Oldsmobile, my father saying, “Hey Mr. Horton!” the cold air outside and my desire to open the window. What did the people in that house with Mary and Jesus think about the smell of nard? When the odor hit their nostrils did they think of funerals and dead bodies? Maybe it made them think of sore feet rubbed clean after a long day of walking. Maybe it made them think of stories they had been told about the spice traders and faraway lands. It probably did not make them think about love and devotion. Yet this is exactly what Mary is trying to express to Jesus. He has raised her brother from the dead. We can imagine that Jesus’ words and teachings have also brought new life into her heart. Mary loves Jesus so much. Did she plan for this outlandish display of affection? Did she think to herself, “The rabbi is coming over, I think I’ll let my hair down and break out the nard.” My sense is that this lavish act, this extravagant offering was not planned ahead of time. When Jesus walks in the door, the power of his presence moves something in Mary, and she willingly follows. She probably is not thinking about whether it is appropriate or not, whether the nard will stink up the whole house, whether it will bring back memories of death. I think she is just being fully present, fully in the moment, fully caught up in her abiding love for the human embodiment of God’s love. The smell is not the point. And yet, maybe after that, the guests will never smell nard again without remembering that Jesus receives her gift with gratitude. Maybe it wakes them up somehow to the reality that just because something smells powerful doesn’t mean it smells bad. Mary takes a smell that belongs with death and associates it with love. Jesus, likewise, accepts death and transforms it on the cross into an opportunity for life.
Mary of Bethany is really a model disciple. She washes Jesus’ feet, and it is Jesus who imitates her a few chapters later when he commands his disciples to wash one another’s feet. So what does this mean for us? That’s the question we ask. Are we supposed to be like Mary, the model disciple, and make an extravagant offering too? Sure, it would be wonderful if everyone here decided to drop a year’s wages in the collection plate or maybe just put that much as a bequest to St. George’s in your will to help continue the work of this place. Yet, I think Mary’s discipleship is less about the gift and more about following the movement of her heart. What does discipleship smell like? All the times I have remembered the story about Mr. Horton, I have focused on the discipleship of my parents, how nice it was for them to offer him a ride. As I have remembered this story recently, I have been wondering why Mr. Horton would use all that hair cream in the first place. Maybe that was his extravagant offering. He was not rubbing Jesus’ feet with his hair, but he was rubbing that cream into his own hair in order to prepare himself to kneel at the feet of his beloved Savior. Maybe the strong smell woke him up. Maybe it was a way for him to say “I’m not afraid of death. I’m going to church today! And I’ll even accept a ride from this well-meaning young family even though it hurts my heart that I can’t drive myself anymore.” Just getting up and getting ready for church might have been Mr. Horton’s extravagant offering.
As we continue to walk our Lenten road, may we encounter the aroma of faith that wakes us up, more precious than gold, mysterious and transforming. May we open our holy noses to smell what new thing God is doing in this present moment and respond without apology or embarrassment. When God calls us to love and be loved, to become love, may we not hold back, may we be a fragrant offering.