Do you have a favourite smell? An odour that just delights you when it makes it to your nose?
I have several smells that I really like. I love the smell that the earth makes when rain falls upon it on a hot day, the smell of warmth and fecundity: that smell makes me think of being ten and the wild freedom of summer vacation. I love the rich, fermented smell of olives sitting in a dish: that smell makes me think of the days when Phoebe and I were first married and we stocked our pantry at a nearby delicatessen. I love the smell of used bookstores. Does that smell even have a name? The smell of musty old words. That smell makes me think of curiosity and discovery and imagination. I even like some smells that aren’t all that pleasant in and of themselves because of what they evoke. There is a certain brand of cat litter, for instance, that smells just like the basement of my childhood friend. That smell makes me think of the many happy afternoons that I spent at his house after school.
What about a least favourite smell? A smell that you just can’t stand?
I don’t like the smell of ammonia: that was the smell of my great grandmother’s nursing home, the smell of its angry staff and its terrifyingly clean floors. I don’t like the smell of smoky rooms, even if nobody is smoking in them right now: the history of a thousand and one of cigarettes is just soaked into the walls; those rooms smell the way that a wheezy cough sounds. I don’t like the iron smell of blood: it holds the echoes of wipe outs on bikes and skinned knees and accidents with carving knives.
All of these smells, the ones that I have named and, perhaps, the ones that you have thought of – and forgive me if this is obvious, but I think we need to name this out loud before we go any further – are powerful not just for what they trigger in our noses but for what they trigger in our memories. Smell, maybe more than anything else, is a gateway to the past. As Vladimir Nabokov writes, “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.”
The readings that the lectionary (i.e., the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next) gives us this morning are as full of smell as anything that scripture has to offer, they are an olfactory delight. Here is Isaiah telling us of the sea: the smell of which proclaims the story of salt and life and danger. Here is the Psalm telling us of joyously bringing in the sheaves: the bundles of cereal plants on the workers’ backs, the air so thick with the smell of pollen that you can almost reach out and hold it in your hand. Here is Paul telling us of rubbish, of the almost overpowering smell of forgotten clothes and yesterday’s food.
And here in the Gospel, here is John telling us of a room filled with the smell of perfume.
The perfume in question is nard or, sometimes, spikenard. It was imported into the Ancient Near East from India, Nepal, or China, likely travelling along one of the routes that we know by the name The Silk Road. Nard, being an import in the years before FedEx was open for business, was staggeringly expensive. The 300 denarii at which Judas Iscariot appraises Mary’s jar of nard is about how much a typical worker would have made in a year. If you mentally translate 300 denarii as 45 or 50 thousand dollars, you’re probably in the ballpark.
Nard had a remarkable variety of uses in Jesus’ day. Sometimes it was an ingredient in perfumes, sometimes it functioned as incense in religious rituals, sometimes it was even used in the flavoring of food – you might encounter its smell coming from a frying pan. And sometimes – as we witness in the curious and awesome scene that John recounts today – it was used in the preparation of corpses for burial. Except that, today, in this room, Jesus’ body isn’t a corpse.
Jesus comes to the table, perhaps sitting on the floor, perhaps reclining against a low table (there are some scholars who figure that, in the Ancient Near East) people ate while almost laying almost horizontally, their elbows on the table and their feet pointing away. And Mary comes to him.
She takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard and, in a staggering act of service and intimacy and discipleship and vulnerability, she anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair.
And the house is filled – filled –with the fragrance of the perfume.
What does that room smell like? Some folks who have smelled nard describe it as having a sweet, spicy, and musky smell, as having the smell of the earth. Others speak of mustiness, of the smell of leather.
As the room fills up with this smell, the smell of a glorious old cellar filled with fermentation and moisture and beautiful decay, what memories come to the people who sit around the table? What memories come to Jesus?
Perhaps he remembers his childhood, that time that sits at the fringes of his recollection. Back when his father and his mother told the story of the Magi who came to visit him when he was an infant and the strange gifts that they brought including the jar of myrrh, perhaps a more bitter perfume than nard, but similar in many ways. There are common notes in the scent of each, and both are used in preparing the bodies dead. Ever since Jesus’ birth, people have been preparing for his death.
Perhaps Jesus remembers the party that began his ministry, the wedding feast at Cana at which his Mom challenged him to step out of his shell and into his calling. Does the nard smell at all like wine or the sweat or the people on the dance floor or the electric sensuality of new love, like the young, just-married couple at the centre of the festivities who can barely keep their hands off of one another?
Perhaps Jesus remembers the many meals that he has shared, the bread that he has broken with everyone, everyone who wants to eat with him. Meals with the wealthiest tax collectors and priests, most of whom bathe regularly and smell fantastic. And meals with the poorest of street people and lepers and prostitutes, most of whom rarely bathe and have an almost paralyzing cone or body odour surrounding them, the biting smell of dirt and urine and old skin.
Perhaps Jesus remembers the thousand and one acts of service that he and his friends have done together, the thousand and one people whom they have touched – not figuratively touched, but literally held in their hands. (Remember the deaf man whom Jesus heals by putting his fingers right into his ears.) The smell of flesh, the smell of being alive.
Perhaps Jesus remembers the smells that perfumes such as nard are used to cover up. Remember that Jesus lives in a time before sewers and consistent protocols for disposing of dead bodies: unlike most of us in this room, he is no stranger to the smell of putrefaction, to an odour that one contemporary pathologist refers to as overwhelming and vile. And remember that this story takes place in John immediately after the raising of Lazarus, so the stink of death is fresh in his nose.
And perhaps (Is this a paradox? Let’s run with it and see.) Jesus remembers what is soon to come. In some way the thick smell of nard that fills the room triggers in his memory a picture of what is to come for him. He imagines that day, startling soon, when Nicodemus will bring the spices and he and Joseph of Arimathea will prepare Jesus’ crucified body for burial, as they will get it ready for the tomb.
As the nard fills the room, as Mary pours it upon his feet and washes it with her hair, what this mustiness of this scent calls into the memories of Jesus and his friends is the story of life itself. The remembrance of birth and death and everything in between, the remembrance of meals and friends and strangers and confusion and grief and discovery and love. The smell of nard brings the remembrance of the glorious, hard, wonderful, joyful, messiness of being alive.
 I am indebted to a couple of online commentators for sending my reflections in the direction of smell and for the Nabokov quote in particular: Jannie Swart – gladlylistening.wordpress.com/tag/smells/ – and Karoline M. Lewis – workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4554.
 When I entered this question into Google (what did we do before the internet?), I found a sermon by a preacher who used to be a sommelier, a wine expert, someone who relied on his nose for his living. He is the source of this description. thereligiousleft.org/2012/04/scent-of-god.html