Sense Memory

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “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.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (John 12:1-11)

It is finally spring. The blooming flowers witness to it. The increasingly visible and active wildlife attests to it. My nose confirms it. My nose confirms it not so much because I smell wafting fragrances of spring but because my escalating hay fever serves as a telling indicator that spring has sprung. I am amazed at our senses. Not only do our senses engage us with our present reality, but our senses catapult us into our past, too.

Recently, I traveled to a conference in Durham, North Carolina. A short portion of the conference was held one afternoon on the campus on Duke University. I graduated from Duke nearly a decade ago and have rarely been back since. In fact, it had been more six years since my last visit to the campus. Yet, upon walking through the front doors of The Divinity School, my senses kicked in.

The heavy wooden doors felt the same. The hallways looked the same. And, the building smelled the same. Yes, smelled the same! That same mix of old construction plus youthful vigor stirred with academic anxiety was there. In reality, I do not know exactly what the smell is that makes The Divinity School smell like it does. But, whatever that smell is, it was present.

In a moment, my nose transported me to my days as a student and my stomach began to turn and knot as if I had a test to take that afternoon for which I was ill prepared. Sense memory is incredible in its both potency and viscerality.

I imagine a similar sense memory shaped the gospel writer as he penned the above text. All of the gospels were written after the fact. The gospels are not some chronicler’s notations of the “days of Jesus.” Rather, the gospels are recollections of the acts, stories, and events of Jesus’ life compiled long after the original events to convey a larger theological narrative about life, death, resurrection, and love. This is true for all the gospels, including John’s gospel.

At that future moment as the writer of John scribed this passage, I imagine him in a room somewhere, squirreled away, jotting down his account of Jesus’ narrative of salvation. John would sit next to an open window for better light. While reflecting on the life of his friend and Lord, unexpectedly, a familiar scent wafts through that open window. Carried on a warm spring breeze, the smell of nard from the perfumery in the marketplace below sparks a distant yet still personally present memory.

Ever since the events of that earlier day, when John smells nard he cannot help but recall the powerful events of that long-ago week that began so triumphantly only to end so crushingly. This smell seemingly suspends time and vanishes space, transporting John from his current room to another time and place altogether.

There John was back in that day now some distance in the past. He finds himself, again, in Bethany just outside Jerusalem with Jesus and many of his followers sharing a meal prepared by Martha. The group was still trying to process what had happened a few days before when Jesus raised Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. Now, at their table, Lazarus was sitting with them eating. It was during this same meal that Lazarus’ other sister Mary ran into the room and poured out the expensive, fragrant nard oil onto Jesus. That was not the first time that John smelled nard, but all of the emotion and excitement of those days coupled with Mary’s impetuous and lavish anointing sealed that moment in his memory, locking that memory tightly to that pungent smell. If not a new smell, he certainly smelled nard in a new way after the events of that day and the days to follow. Therefore, in some respects, it was as if he was smelling nard for the first time.

In that initial instance, the disciples did not really know what to do with Mary’s actions. What she did was a bit curious, as the nard oil was both expensive and usually reserved for anointing the dead. However, now, with many years between these past events and his present reality, John had managed to reconsider many of Mary’s actions. Back in his present world, Mary’s actions made much more sense.

To buy nard oil, Mary spent her life’s savings. Her action was a complete and total “cashing in” of her life in response to the new life Jesus declared when he raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. Just before raising Lazarus, Jesus shouted, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Mary seemed to perceive that the kind of life necessary to have this new, resurrected life demanded complete sacrifice, the cashing in of everything. And, as John and his fellow disciples would soon learn, Jesus’ week would end with just such a complete sacrifice, a total offering of all that he was, nothing held back, nothing reserved.

This kind of total giving of his life in exchange for our lives of service and personal commitment does not leave room for proportional giving or partial commitment. A life of faith is not as much as a set of propositions believed but a way of life we are willing to live, to live sacrificially and completely without reservation or withholding. Like Mary’s oil, our lives must be poured out fully and luxuriously for God and for others.

Imagine the gospel story if Jesus had only gone part of the way to Jerusalem, turning just before the cross. Imagine if Jesus had decided that the life of faith did not require personal investment of his life and actions but simply his intellectual assent to the notion that the kingdom of God, resurrection and new life, and liberation of the oppressed and healing of the world was only a good idea not an expected, active existence. Imagine such a gospel. Would it be good news or merely news about another philosophy or ideology we choose to believe if convenient?

The gospel writer constructs the narrative so that Mary’s lavish and total giving was both a harbinger of Jesus’ total self-giving that was to come and our total self-giving that must follow. Mary, it turns out, is the very model of faith, i.e., a life committed without reservations to God’s kingdom, a life devoid of withholdings and half-commitments and qualified confessions. Mary, as she proves repeatedly in the gospel stories, gets it. Mary is the first, total convert to the resurrection kingdom because she willingly cashes in all that she has and, in effect, is for Jesus’ resurrection kingdom. Moreover, in her actions, Mary serves as proxy for God, anointing Jesus and making him Christ, Messiah (i.e., the “anointed one”, the king) to ride into Jerusalem as the king of his people, of his new, re-created world.

John cannot help but remember this moment and breathe in Mary’s actions. It is the nard. The nard does it every time. The smell of that oil always transports him back to that moment, reminding him of Mary’s complete and lavish outpouring of self on the one who would pour out himself for the whole world just a few days later. For the gospel writer, the nard becomes but a metaphor for our total, active engagement in a kingdom of love and selflessness, of generosity and abundance. Its smell remains a pungent reminder, a sensual trigger.

The gospel writer seems intentionally to have retained this story to compel us to ask, what sense memories would our lives of faith trigger? If the smelling of nard would transport others to some part of our lives of faith, what would they see; onto whom would they see us lavishly and generously pouring out our lives? Would our lives of faith be more akin to a series of intellectual calculations and appropriate confessions, or would our lives of faith be lives of abundant, selfless, generosity as we anoint with our love those whom Jesus touched: the marginalized, the discarded, the despised, the disempowered, the despicable, the displaced, and the disregarded?

Jesus’, Mary’s and our touching herald the in-breaking of a new, resurrection kingdom.
As we begin Holy Week, may our retelling of these stories become more than simple reminiscing but the declaration of our manifesto to an active living of the kingdom not for ourselves but for others through our own lavish, loving outpouring.



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