“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” John 12:3
The scene at the home of Lazarus described by Saint John is one that would have engaged the five senses of at least some of those present: sight, taste, touch, scent and hearing. Thinking about the five sensory experiences can help us in thinking about our own faith.
The sense of sight: Saint John Chapter 12 Verse 1 says, “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” The raising of Lazarus had been an extraordinary very public moment. When Lazarus had been ill, Jesus had delayed going to Bethany and had only arrived four days after Lazarus had died. Every eye was upon Jesus, what would he do? Jesus makes no effort to conceal his actions, everyone there could see what happened. Seeing is believing for some of the people who were there, but what was seen was the last straw for Jesus’ opponents, who then plotted to kill him.
The theme of the sense of sight being important to faith continues through Saint John’s Gospel. After the resurrection, there is the story of Thomas who will not believe Jesus has risen from the dead unless he sees for himself. Jesus asks Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The sense of sight told people Lazarus was alive, but Jesus looks for a faith that goes beyond what people can see; the challenge is to believe without seeing.
The sense of taste would have been prominent in the memories of those present. Verse 2 says, “There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.” Meals are important moments in the ministry of Jesus, to invite someone to a meal or to sit at someone else’s table was a significant mark of respect. Jesus caused outrage among his critics by eating with those they regarded as unacceptable. The ever practical Martha serves the meal to Jesus and his friends.
Offering hospitality is an important way of responding to Jesus. The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is a reminder that in welcoming an unknown stranger one welcomes the presence of God. Our sense of taste might perhaps remind us of the hospitality we have received and the hospitality that we as Christians owe to others.
The sense of touch expressed in the story would have been one that probably scandalised Jesus’ critics and even caused his friends to ask questions. We are told, in Verse 3, “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” Imagine the reaction if such an incident took place in our own times, and then try to imagine the reaction that Mary’s conduct would have provoked in the conservative society of First Century Palestine. Words like “inappropriate” would probably have described the thoughts of those present. Mary crossed a social barrier and would have met with the disapproval of many.
Mary’s example of crossing barriers was quickly forgotten by the church, which spent centuries creating barriers between people, defying anyone to run against its rules. Church rules became the rules for our society and we were afraid to break them, afraid to point to the example of Jesus who broke all the barriers of his time. Mary’s action asks the question of us of whether we have the courage to cross barriers in expressing our faith.
The sense of smell is one to which Saint John refers in the story of the raising of Lazarus, “‘Lord, already there is a stench,” says Martha; and now in the house of Lazarus the smell is very different, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Our sense of smell is the one most closely associated with memory and for years afterward the scent of nard would have carried the disciples back to that room in Bethany. As they scent drew them back, how would they remember that scene? How much would they have changed since that moment?
“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume:” Saint Paul suggests that as Christians we should be people whose presence is like a pleasant perfume, he writes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 2 Verse 15, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” It is an idea that is troubling, Christ being judged on how people sense our presence. Does the church we encounter in the media, in our own experiences, have the air of a pleasant perfume, or does it smell of other things?
Sight, taste, touch, smell, the final sense is hearing. There is a brief conversation between Judas Iscariot and Jesus that is heard by everyone. In Verse 5, Judas says, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Saint John objects, in Verse 6 that Judas was not interested in the poor, but “kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” Jesus seems to treat Judas’ objection as purely hypothetical, telling Judas, in Verses 7-8, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” What did they make of what they heard?
Sometimes, we can be very good at asking the sort of questions the disciples heard Judas Iscariot ask. We can ask hypothetical questions: why is the world the way it is? Who is responsible? Why doesn’t someone do something? Jesus would presumably answer our hypothetical questions with concrete answers: the opportunities to respond are there every day, what are you going to do?
Sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing: five senses asking us about our response as Christians.