Fifth Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert


Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8
Psalm 126


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.”[1]

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.[2] Others speak of mustiness, of the smell of leather.[3]

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.[4] 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.



[1] 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 – – and Karoline M. Lewis –

[2] 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.



The Flowers in the Desert + Fifth Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver


Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 51:1-13

Hebrews 5:5-10

John 12:20-33

By the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the shadows of the cross spread like cold ash across the wilderness landscape…..and yet, at this same time……desert wildflowers are in bloom.  At this same time, the floor of the desert becomes, for one brief moment carpeted with the color of a thousand different blooms.  Where it seemed there was nothing, now shows that there was always something.  Indian Paint Brush, Desert Lily, Sand Bells, African Daisies, Sand Verbena and scores more.  What seemed barren and colorless…..harsh and challenging….now proclaims renewal of life with a mighty show.  Perhaps it is fitting that at the height of what we might perceive as the most fatiguing part of our Lenten journey across the desert……. becomes the most forgiving time in the desert wilderness.  And although it is not a field of poppies to run through, and we feel the harsh rocks of the world below the colorful cover of the landscape ……. we witness and experience a sign of hope along the way. The desert flowers remind us of our trust and hope in God’s constancy and presence and keep us keeping on.

We hold trust and hope in God’s covenant with us, even if we have broken our covenant with God. The Prophet Jeremiah reveals that God does not break covenants, it is we, God’s people who do.  Even in the midst of the mess we make of our lives at a personal, national and international level, God is willing to be true to God’s covenant to love God’s people.  And not only is God true to God’s covenant, God is willing to keep trying to reach out to us until we understand beyond a superficial level just what a covenant with God means and  what God wants of us

Jeremiah reminds us that we have the capability to know God in a new and deeply personal way, and God desires us to know God so much that God is ready to make a new covenant.  It isn’t like the old one…the one that was static, written in stone, carved on tablets, and on temple walls so that we could all see it and disobey it. It’s a new covenant…..this new law is not written in stone, it is written in our hearts and can be there for all to see in our daily living.  The new covenant isn’t just about knowing about God and God’s laws…… it’s about knowing God.

We don’t have to interpret it….or analyze it……we are simply free to experience the joy that comes with the kind of freedom we experience when we love.  A similar feeling one might feel when falling in love in a human way…….when our hearts and souls are filled with love for the other and there is a sense of perfect freedom of being totally at peace with oneself and with another who love us too.

When we experience that kind of knowing God and loving with God, we are free to be who we really are with God………it is like falling in love with God……and our joy can transcend into a kind of divine euphoria……as we put our hearts into being the best that that God could ever hope we could be.  Rather than trying to intellectualize it, we are called to experience it and move into it with a new level of passion.

During Lent we work hard to reach it.  We stumble through the desert trying to turn away from all that separates us to God….toward all that brings us closer to God….and in our falling and rising, our failures and our new attempts, we are to remember God’s covenant.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” says the Lord. “The least of these and the greatest will know God” No one is excluded from knowing God.

God is right there with us, writing God’s oath on the core of our being.  Our steps cannot help to feel lighter…..more swift.  How can we fail to notice the flowers along the way?

To know about God is a heady thing….something we intellectualize.  But to know God is heady in a different way….a joyful, unfettered way.  To know about God is conditional and superficial.  We know all about the scriptures, the theology and the doctrine.   We know about the other. We know about the people down the street. We know about the people suffering around the world, but do we really know them?  Are they written on our hearts?

As if in answer to our questions,  God makes a vow to us that is as filled with wonder and hope as a desert turned from desolation to flower-filled beauty…..I will remember no more their sins and forgive my people completely.

Just like the hidden possibilities that lie beneath a desert floor, God is always at work, watching, renewing, creating and loving.  And when God acts, new things happen.

It’s a new kind of covenant….different than the old….not negating the old, but perhaps extending it….enhancing it…..bringing it from the outside to the inside….from the impersonal to the personal….the superficial to the heartfelt.

During this Lenten season we have heard the voice of the new covenant.   A Muslim voice, a Jewish voice and others who carry God’s law written in their hearts.  They are voices that seek not just to know about us, but to know us by offering their hearts to let us look inside, so that we will know them.

Herein lies the hope and herein lies the lesson we are to learn as we walk these last steps toward the foot of the cross.

We have had the time to think and now it is time to take stock as we come closer to Jerusalem.  To take stock of our repeated errors…to recognize that there must be a new way to approach our situations.

Instead of reacting with our heads, we can now react with our hearts – the meeting place of the divine and the human. Surely with God’s words written in our hearts, our reactions will lead us to new solutions.

“Make me an instrument of your peace,” says the Prayer of St. Francis. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”  Where there is discord between two people, we can react in the old way, forgetting the law of the ten commandments completely, as we lie, judge, and kill…..the body, the soul or both.  But God’s new Covenant calls for a new kind of passion to stir and spring up, a freedom to love… we know we are loved….. through the power of forgiveness that streams from the Cross……and the freedom to move our love into the world propelled by the Holy Spirit…… bringing with us…….reconciliation and a desire to give rather than to take.

We consider the state of the world, rife with cultural clash and division, carrying death and destruction into our living rooms and into our communities.  It is a world System that lies outside of the heart…..where self-righteousness and the need to be right, deafens ears and deadens reason.  We can create a list of transgressions….between each other, between different denominations of our own church, between faith traditions, between our consuming desires and environmental destruction…the list goes on.

Walter Wink suggests that the “myth of redemptive violence” is the primary myth of the System.”  According to this myth, we only succeed in bringing order out of chaos “through defeating the other.” [1]  We take care of our enemies by eliminating them, just as the System tried to eliminate Jesus.  And I am not just referring to ISIS or other extremist groups. The myth starts working on its domination of us early in life and follows close behind us throughout our lives…..through our interactions between each other, our priorities and our preferred consumption, demands and expectations – so much so that we are often simply at a loss as to how we are to avoid its powerful hold on our lives especially when it escalates from simple fulfillment of selfish desire to meanness to fear mongering and to terrorism.

Would that a new law of love be written on those hearts so that peace could find its foothold.   Would that the passion that drives to misguidedness, be driven by God’s law of love in the heart.

There is no need for a clash of cultures when God’s law replaces the law of the World…in the Greek understanding…the kosmos…….the System.   No need to fight for perceived right – no need for pride or mid-guided ambition, no need for judgment, suspicion and malice, no need to claim one’s own virtue and the other’s blasphemy.  There is only openness.  Openness to the Spirit.  Openness to God’s desire for each of God’s children to bloom like a desert flower rather than self-destruct and fall, like ashes back onto the desert floor.

So as we continue on toward the desert horizon…… we understand what we have to examine.  What part of the world rules us to the detriment of all around us?  What is the System demanding of us…..what is holding us captive? Living under the law of the System….who…in our lives…. are the winners and who are the losers?  Why do we continue to desire to dominate….to win through violence to the body, mind and spirit?

Like Jesus, we are to walk in fearless freedom from the myths of the System, refusing to buy into judgment, punishment and threat.  Jesus called it when he was brought to face Pilate.  “My kingdom is not from this world” [2] (translate System.)  He foresaw his crucifixion and used it to expose the violence of the System in its need to be rid of him. Jesus teaches us that through His resurrection, we will be front row seat witnesses of the way of the System, it will expose itself for what it is….a violent affront to all that God wants for God’s Kingdom. Once we recognize the violence that the world imposes,  we will recognize those parts of our lives shaped by the System which must die …….allowing newness of life to be free to live in a new way… the way of Jesus. “Surely,” says the Centurian, standing beneath Jesus at the moment of his death “This was the Son of God

When God speaks, do we hear God’s words?  Jesus prayed, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say….. ‘Father, save me from this hour?  No, it is for this reason I come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ ” [3]  Jesus held God’s words written on his heart…  “I have glorified it and will  glorify it again.”

God’s words are spoken, teaches Jesus, for us…… more than for himself. ……So that we can love rather than be at war.

So that we can forgive ourselves instead of succumbing to self-hatred and guilt…….. so that we can forego envy and jealousy and love our neighbors as ourselves, being openly accepting of the other……loving our earth and all that lives in it.  What would it be like to act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.  Is it nothing less than our God requires of us? [4]

What are the ways in which we need the law of love to be written on our hearts?  How do we prepare ourselves to make room in our hearts for the power of the resurrection, so that we may be made new and…… our lives….our way of living and  the livesof all those we know …….will be made new because of it?  We know there is much to distract us and to live in such a way is not easy in a world that can be so unkind.  Much of the world will want us to live by a different law but this is ours to resist.

We resist because we have come a long way and we must keep moving toward a destiny of love of peace that the world so desperately seeks. It is the covenant we made with God and God with us.  To love God with all our heart and with all our soul and all our mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The words are not just to be written in our books.

Like flowers of the desert, rising out of the desolate…….they are to bring living proof of the renewal of life….and they do…..because they are written in our hearts.

Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
March 22, 2015

[1] Walter Wink: Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992,) 13 – 31, 51-59.

[2] John 18:36

[3] Mark 15:39

[4] Micah 6:8