“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” John 12:3
“Sensing the Passion” is our theme this Holy Week, reading Saint Matthew’s account of the events from Palm Sunday to Good Friday and trying to imagine how the disciples would have experienced those days through their five senses.
The sense of smell is the sense most closely associated with memory. As we follow the events of that week there must have been moments when there were aromas, pleasant or unpleasant, which when smelt in later times would take the disciples back to the scenes in Jerusalem. Saint John tells us of how the fragrance of the nard, oil from a flowering plant, filled the whole house after Mary had poured the perfume over the feet of Jesus. The smell of nard afterwards would have reminded those present of the scene in that room. As we follow Saint Matthew’s telling of the story of that week, there must have been times he describes when the disciples’ sense of smell was very active.
Disciples are sent ahead by Jesus to prepare for his ride into Jerusalem, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me”, Jesus instructs them in Saint Matthew Chapter 21 Verse 2. The stable in which the donkeys were kept would have had all the smells we would associate with a stable. Jesus and his disciples usually travelled on foot, the donkeys were something unfamiliar: did the smell of a stable come to evoke memories of that morning? Did it remind them of Jesus’ instruction to do something unfamiliar, something so unfamiliar that he had to be very specific about exactly what it was they were to do?
Reading about the disciples doing as they were instructed might make us ask questions of ourselves, how ready are we to do things that are unfamiliar? How ready are we to do things for no reason other than we believe that doing so is what God would want? The disciples must have felt odd leading the donkey and colt from the village, silly, even, but sometimes being a follower of Jesus asks that of us, that we be prepared to be different, to even be odd.
The donkey fetched, the procession into Jerusalem began. Saint Matthew Chapter 21 Verse 8 describes the reception Jesus received, “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road”. A hot, Middle Eastern day and a crowd of thousands gathered to see Jesus, the air would have been filled with numerous smells, not all of them easy on the nose. Perhaps there might have been a certain sense of relief among the disciples when Jesus reached the city and dismounted from the donkey, the chance to escape from the crowds and find fresh air might have been something very welcome.
It would not be hard to imagine the smell of the crowd, particularly in times when washing was not part of daily life and when people might have only one set of clothes. A crowd gathering would have attracted all sorts of people, some of them genuinely interested, some of them just casually curious, some of them up to no good: there were all sorts of people on that road. Perhaps the disciples felt exhilarated by the experience, but they felt apprehensive, frightened. Would we have been prepared to stand in their place, to stand alongside Jesus amongst the crowds, or would we have preferred to follow from a distance, to stay in the shadows? The smell of a crowd can serve as a reminder to us of that Palm Sunday morning and a challenge to us about where we stand
Jesus goes out of the city each evening to Bethany and it is in Bethany that the perfume is poured over him, the fragrance of which, Saint John says, filled the whole house. Saint Matthew Chapter 26 Verse 7 says, “a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table”. The woman’s action prompts a reaction from the disciples, Verses 8-9 describe it, “When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. ‘Why this waste?’ they asked.’This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.'” They have spent three years in the company of Jesus, they have seen his concern for the poor and the outcast, yet they raise an audible objection to the woman’s behaviour. What emotion has the smell of the perfume aroused in them? Perhaps an awareness of a lack of generosity? Perhaps the feeling of a need to find fault with Jesus because they have heard the whispers going around about the plot against Jesus and want to distance themselves?
Saint John recalls that the fragrance filled the whole house, that everyone there was aware of it. Everyone was challenged by the woman’s action and it is a challenge to us: how generous are we toward God? How ready are we to give more than we can spare?
The time for the Passover meal comes. Saint Matthew Chapter 26 Verses 26-27 say, “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you'”. What aromas filled the air as they sat in that room? The burning oil of the lamps, the food, the wine? This most significant of moments was surrounded by the smells of everyday domestic life. In simple actions at a meal Jesus conveys to his friends something profound.
How often are we aware of God in the ordinary things? How often would the smells of food in an ordinary kitchen remind us of God’s presence with us? Next time we smell fresh bread, perhaps it could recall for us that gathering in the Upper Room, perhaps it could help us realize God’s great love for us.
After the meal, Saint Matthew Chapter 26 Verse 36, tells us, “Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane”. A garden at night time would have been a place filled with fragrance. The air would have been cool after the heat of the day and there would have been the scent of the trees and the plants . Gethsemane was a place of beauty, but it becomes a place of betrayal and violence. For the disciples, the scent of a garden would surely have come to recall the fear and the failure of that night?
The scent of Gethsemane is a reminder that the world is a place of good and evil, a place of contrasts, a place of choices. The scent of our own gardens, the scent of night air, can remind us of that night and remind us that we have to choose.
The disciples mostly melt into the darkness, but not all of them, Saint Matthew Chapter 26 Verse 58 says, “But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end”. Saint John Chapter 18 Verse 18 gives us more detail, “It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself”. The final smell, scent, aroma, that we might consider is that of burning wood, for Peter it would come to be a reminder of that moment in the courtyard, it would remind him of his denial of Jesus.
The smell of our own fires on a cold night: what things do they recall for us? Perhaps they can remind us of that moment in the early hours of a Friday morning, perhaps they can make us think about our own loyalty to Jesus, perhaps they can make us ask: when do I deny Jesus?