The scent of sorrow, the aroma of joy

John 12:1-8

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
Rector

April 07, 2019

Imagine what it must have been like. The perfume filled the whole house. You couldn’t have walked in the front door or back, you couldn’t have hung a jacket in the closet, you couldn’t have stirred a pot in the kitchen, you couldn’t have hugged a child, or taken out the garbage or run a sink of water or served a cup of tea without being surrounded by the smell of that pure nard.

It was the scent of honor and grief. It was the scent that Mary had used as a balm and ointment upon the feet of our Lord just days before he would stagger with his cross to the degradation of crucifixion and the terrifying shadow of death.

The smell was everywhere. It tainted the meal being served. It hung in the air, choking out the words between the guests, clouding their vision and fogging their minds. They could not see the act of devotion from the gracious and grateful hands of a sister of the man Jesus had just recently raised from the dead. They could not fathom the sacrifice and mourning of a woman so surely devoted and convinced of the holiness of our Lord and the power of God that he embodied.

As she made her act of devotion, he spoke of his death. How piercing those words must have been. This man whom she loved and honored, this man that had raised her brother from the dead would not deny or retreat from his own death but would embrace it willingly, that each of us may be Lazarus for eternity.

All of this meaning hung in the air like the stolid aroma from the ointment she had so generously poured. But as thick as that air hung, imagine the scent that swirled around her own face. Her hair had absorbed the scent, the aroma, the pungent piercing of that ointment she had used to prepare the holy man for his death, our death; his burial and ours.

Could she dare to hope for his resurrection, or hers, or ours? Could we? Do we? Can we even know that for which we hope?

Her hair was her glory, as it was for every woman of her age. Very rarely was it let down and never, never in public. It was a scandal for it to be seen by the guests at the table. Either as a banner of her passion or her grief, as her culture dictated, she was flagrantly ruining the banquet. The air hung as thick as her hair. The smell would have caused everyone to choke, and her hair would have caused them to gasp.

Finally (after how long?), she gathered her hair back into the bounds of decorum and left the room. The aroma began to clear. Perhaps an evening breeze would bring the mercy of fresh air. But in the back of the house would sit Mary, still surrounded by the scent of sacrifice, praise and grief. It would stay with her in every breath. It would stay with her for days. As Jesus departed that night she would breathe the nard. As Jesus entered Jerusalem, hailed as a king, she would inhale that same scent. As he stood trial, was scourged raw, was led to his execution and nailed between heaven and earth, still she would be surrounded by the aura of the ointment. While she mourned his death she would be reminded that she had sealed him with her devotion, and offered him, perhaps, the last measure of kindness he would know this side of the grave.

When she saw him risen, the first born of a new and ever new creation, would the smell change? Would it still smell of sorrow or would it smell of joy? Would it smell of death or of life? Would it smell of the end or of the beginning? It would smell of all of these; and all at once; for that is one of God’s great acts.

God brings life from death and joy from sorrow, not by destroying pain or grief but by redeeming it, renewing it, recreating it. That night she dried his feet and swooned under the pall of grief’s anointing. Days later she would be drying her cheeks from the tears of exultation and marveling how the scent of sorrow had become the fragrance of joy.