John 12: 1 – 8
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
One Sunday when this was the set reading, I took some nard – the perfume mentioned in this reading – for the congregation to smell. I put a few drops in some oil and we drew crosses on our hands as a form of anointing. As the anointing took place, the room began to fill with the smell of nard. I say smell rather than fragrance as fragrance would suggest it was a sweet and enticing smell – it wasn’t! The reactions to the smell of the nard were strong; wrinkled noses, turning away, some even wiping it off with their hankies (only to discover later the smell doesn’t come out… even after washing). You could see the physical reaction to the smell. I wouldn’t say it’s really unpleasant; rather it is very earthy and musty. Our modern noses might wonder why it was such a precious and expensive perfume.
One of nard’s historical uses was for the anointing of bodies. More than one person in the service commented how they’d smelt this before at funeral parlours. This usage along with Jesus’ comments about Mary’s actions being the anointing of his body for burial brought it home to me that the smell that filled the house at that moment was a smell everyone would associate with death. Of course, in that room, the thoughts of death were already close because Lazarus sat amongst them. Lazarus who had been dead for four days, and then was restored to life by Jesus’ summons from the tomb (John 11: 1 – 44). When Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb the onlookers fear the smell of the dead body, even though it would have been anointed with nard and other spices. Once again the thought of death is brought close by the power of smell. Jesus knew what was coming and he had told his followers, but I wonder if they had really taken this in. Mary’s actions are prophetic, even if she didn’t realise it.
Just a few drops of nard filled the church – imagine the impact of a whole pint of the perfume. There would have been no escaping it. There would have been in that moment an extravagance of smell, an extravagance of death. John’s gospel often points to the extravagance actions of God in Jesus: the miracle of the water into wine at Cana (John 2: 1 – 12) Jesus makes gallons of wine – more than needed and of the best possible quality; in feeding the 5000 they end up with twelve baskets full of left-overs (John 6: 1 – 14). The extravagance of God’s love is seen in Jesus’ anointing and in his death on the cross. It might seem an odd way to show love, but it is summarised in John 3: 16 – ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’. Jesus makes the ultimate sacrifice for us – an extravagance of death pointing beyond to an extravagance of love. But for the moment, whilst we are still in Holy Week, let us remember the smell of the nard reminding us of the imminence of Jesus’ death.