This year I was invited to preach at our Holy Week services. Inspired by the Gospel readings set for the week I am doing a series on the senses.
Here is my sermon from Holy Monday. I burnt some incense during the service to add to the experience.
Monday: John 12:1-11 – SCENT
This Holy Week we are going to journey to the cross with Jesus and we’re going to enter into this journey using all five of our senses. Tonight we are going to be reflecting on our sense of smell.
10 years ago I visited my brother in New York. On the trip we went to a perfumier in a very trendy part of Brooklyn called Williamsburg. The shop was called ‘I hate perfume’ and was run by an eccentric genius who used to work for one of the big French perfumiers but became disillusioned and opened his own small shop. What was distinctive about his store was that although he had a line of perfumes you could buy, you could also go to him and he would create a scent perfect for you. He had literally a library of different scents in the store. I went round with my brother and we laughed as we sniffed each one in turn. This perfumier had bottled the smell of leather, the smell of old library books (that was one of my favourites), the smell of lipstick (which took me back to playing with my mother’s lipstick as a child), even the smell of wet soil. I came away with one of his own perfumes that was named Winter 1972 – to me it smelled of fresh air and snow. It was an absolutely gorgeous scent, I loved wearing it. Interestingly, once I got back home to England, every time I wore that perfume it took me right back to New York. It made me think of all the snow that was there when I visited, it reminded me of my brother as well.
Smells transport us, in an instant to a place or time or person. I still get absurdly slightly excited at the scent of chlorine – as it was always an exciting smell as a child as it meant we were going swimming for a treat. The smell of bacon cooking always always makes me think of my grandparents as they had it every day for breakfast. I grew up in a church that used incense in worship a lot. Lucky for me that when I smell incense it makes me think of God and God’s presence.
Tonight’s gospel reading contained many different scents – a big crowd was probably gathered at Martha’s house. Perhaps it’s a celebration party as Jesus has just raised his friend Lazarus from the dead and he is there along with his sister Mary. There would have been the smell of the food Martha had prepared, freshly chopped parsley perhaps, warm toasted bread, olive oil, maybe some lamb. There would have been the smell of the people, warm, sweaty and dusty. And then, in the middle of it all, Mary takes a jar of nard, perfume worth a year’s salary, and breaks it and uses it to anoint Jesus’ feet. And the smell of the fragrance filled the room.
Mary performs the ultimate act of love, giving of all she had, a most costly gift. Mary makes herself vulnerable in front of all the guests, she lets her hair down and wipes Jesus feet with it – a very sensual act, scandalous, even. She understands the economy of the Kingdom, just like the man that finds the pearl of great price who uses all his money to buy it, she gives all she has to Jesus. And just like the yeast in the batch of bread, and the light on the lampstand giving light to the whole house, the scent of the perfume fills the room. Her act of love permeates into every corner, permeates into this space here tonight.
Mary breaks the jar, just as Jesus’ body is broken on Good Friday and love pours out.
There is a clash of scents in the room and Jesus draws attention to it. He tells the people there that Mary has anointed her for his burial. The scent of death is here too, alongside the scent of love.
The smell of that perfume would have lingered for days. It would have got into the hair and clothes of the people in that room. It would have remained on Jesus for the rest of the week, perhaps even up until Good Friday, he carried that perfume of love on his body.
When we meet with Jesus in this sacred meal of the Eucharist, we too are filled with his fragrance of love. We leave this place to continue the journey to the cross carrying this fragrance on us. And with Jesus we can smell both death and love and life all at the same time, for that is the journey of Holy Week. All those things held in tension and made somehow beautiful together. May the fragrance fill the whole room of our hearts. May others be able to smell it on us, that great gift of love.