Death, a Thief, and the Scent of Perfume

Fifth Sunday in Lent | John 12:1-8

Death, a Thief, and the Scent of Perfume

At the dinner table sat Lazarus, the man who died and lived to tell about it. Except that’s the interesting thing: he didn’t tell about it, at least not in the story recorded in John’s Gospel. Surely people of that day were just as curious as we are, wondering what Lazarus experienced in death, what it was like, whether there were things to fear, what it was like to awaken in the tomb, to shuffle into the light wrapped in a burial shroud.

We don’t hear any of that.

Jesus also sat there, the man who was headed toward confrontation and nearly certain death. Everyone in the room knew trouble was coming. The crowd outside knew it. The spies sent from nearby Jerusalem knew it. Judas knew it. Jesus knew it.

As they sat, Lazarus remembering the tomb and Jesus looking forward to it, they were overwhelmed by the scent of the perfume that Mary was rubbing on Jesus’ feet. It is said that smell is the most powerful trigger of memory that we have. Everyone in the room remembered the smell they encountered when they approached Lazarus’ tomb days after his death. Now for the rest of their lives they would remember the scent of this room, this dinner.

John tells us that Judas complained at the cost of the perfume poured out. He had foreseen the end of their discipleship days and wanted a golden parachute for his retirement: today he would have been called a shrewd executive, but John just calls him a thief.

Then Jesus said a strange thing. “Leave her be, that she may keep it until the day of my entombment.”

So that is what it smelled like that morning at the tomb, after it was all done, like Mary’s perfume, the same one she used on his feet, the same scent that filled their house at this dinner gathering, perfume she saved to anoint his body.

VinegarAs I write this reflection, on and off, I have paused to work on a home improvement project, installing an interior passageway door. It is an old door, one that was left in this house by a previous owner I never met. It has twenty seven panes of glass, though I can find no theological significance in the number. It has been trimmed, cut down, repurposed, like many of us. I have just been scrubbing it with vinegar and water.

Vinegar is a cleansing agent and a preservative, but I find the scent reminds me of spring time and nature, of life. Perfume, on the other hand, often reminds me of funerals.

It may be that the scent of Mary’s perfume reminded everyone in the inner circle of this last gathering, one of their last suppers. Jesus may have carried the scent throughout his last days, some of it remaining as he washed his disciples’ feet at their very last supper. As he was crucified, the scent may have lingered in Mary’s hair, may have mixed in the air with the sweat and blood and the pungency of the vinegar Jesus sipped.

We think that God speaks to us in a voice like men, that we might hear it like Charlton Heston in the version of The Ten Commandments that plays in our heads. Maybe that happens. More often, I think God pricks our memory with things as simple as the scent of perfume or the aroma of vinegar.

How strange that we can find the eternal in such ordinary things. Scents. Tastes. Memories. It is amazing that something so ephemeral as perfume can linger with us all our lives.Dogwood Flower

It is more amazing that something so ephemeral as our lives can linger after us, like perfume in a room we have already left.