Scent Memory and Meaning


A Sermon on John 12:1-8


For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by David Clode on unsplash.


The story told in our gospel today has been told by many different people.

Each of the four gospel writers has their own version, adding or emphasizing different details to make their own points.

For Matthew and Mark, the tale includes a foretelling that “wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world” the woman’s deed would be told “in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:13; Mark 14:9).

And it’s true. Preacher, after story-teller, after disciple has taken up this tale as a vehicle of meaning…

… to communicate Christ’s forgiveness,

… or his economics,

… or his foreknowledge of his own death.

This is part of the power of scriptural story-telling. It invites us to listen to Jesus over and over to find new truth.

But I wonder what it might be like to listen NOT to a story told about this woman, but to the story told by her… and, especially, to hear the way she would tell her story after hearing everyone else’s versions.

Of course, we can never know how she would tell her own story, but I would like to invite you to join me in imagining what she might say… the meaning she might give to this story that has been so variously interpreted.

* * *

Have you ever smelled the heavy scent of nard? Inhabiting the air with a call to pay attention. A scent that will not be ignored.

Evocative. Pungent. Compelling.

Can you feel it swirling around you like a clinging veil?

Can you close your eyes and let your mind melt into the mist of memory?

They say that scent, more than any of the other senses, is tied to memory.

An ephemeral hint in the air – a familiar spice, a food, a flower… a perfume – such scents can grab us with tremendous power.

They can transport us back into a different time and place that captures our attention because it holds some profound meaning for us.

Whether that association binds us in irrational fear, or explodes inside us with uncontained joy, the scent is what moves us, draws us, brings us back into a moment that lives forever in our sense memory.

But what makes the moment important… what that memory means… the scent does not tell us that. We bring that meaning with us.

So, when the strong scent of nard invades our memories, what meaning do we intertwine with it?

To some this is a scent of Waste.

If I had only offered my tribute in a reasonable proportion, the protest goes, then it could have been acceptable.

After all, I had much for which to thank the teacher. He was the prophet who had restored my brother to life after days in the grave. It was quite natural for me to seek some way to demonstrate my gratitude.

We were a family of means, and so some small extravagance was understandable.

But three quarters of a pound of pure nard? – poured out with no limit, no consideration of the other uses to which it could be put.

A year’s wages in value. Just think what could be done with such a resource!

There are real needs – the pressing kinds of needs that should take priority over sentiment and extravagant demonstrations.

In the face of real, practical uses for such wealth… to spill it out in such a profligate way is shocking.

Yes – to many, focused on the scarcity of resources, this pouring out of costly scent smells like a waste.

To others, this is a scent of Shame.

This may be the version of my story most familiar to you. Luke told the story this way, and for some reason it seems to fire the imaginations of many gospel readers of later generations.

The sinful woman.

The woman so weighed down with the shame of her life that she could no longer hold it in.

The rules and social niceties meant little to her anyhow, so she laid them aside as she had long ago forsaken any claim to moral living.

Abandoning discretion, she poured out her perfume as she poured out her tears. Nothing else mattered. The pain of her sin broke all constraints and her shame spilled out – an uncomfortable display to scandalize the watching judges.

Yes, to many, focused on the binding up and constraining of sinful nature, this wanton pouring out of scent smells just like shame.

But to others, this is a scent of intimacy.

This scent means stunning closeness.

For, in scent – that must be near to be perceived, that never can be shared at the safe distance of the heavenly throne – we find a whole new meaning of Emmanuel: a God so truly with us I can touch him.

I can pour my precious offering not just at his feet, but on them.

I can let down my hair, a private, vulnerable act, and touch him in the tenderest anointing.

A touch that speaks of total trust, assurance that my God will welcome me just as I am.

And so, to those who long for closeness with their Lord, this pouring out of scent smells sweetly of intimacy.

And yet to others… or, at least, to One… this is a scent of death.

As I sat near, the nard still clinging to my hands, He named my act:

“This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it.”

It was an affirmation of my action, a declaration that I had not transgressed, but rather done the prophet’s and the mourner’s work in one.

And yet… how hard that was to hear.

I wanted to anoint my Jesus as my prophet, priest, and king.

I wanted to pour out my extravagant offering as a pure witness to his unlimited worth. A worth that could NOT die.

But, perhaps I knew, had heard, had understood somewhere below my conscious thought what was to come.

Perhaps the Spirit worked in me to recognize the frailty of this body I could touch – the painful, wrenching consequence of incarnation.

Perhaps, my soul did know my act for what it was.

As I slowly rubbed the burial balm into his skin, perhaps I knew the grace of offering this small comfort to my Lord in preparation for his grave.

Hard as it was to hear, I understand.

To the One who knew all of the roles for which he was anointed, this pouring out of scent smelled strongly of death.

But I too can smell the nard,

can feel it dripping from my hair,

can see it shining on his skin.

I close my eyes and breathe and am transported back into a golden, shining moment of pure love.

For Love is the meaning that fills my memory of the smell of nard.

That powerful scent memory takes me back into a moment where I knew the heart of love.

Love that is un-rationed

Love that is un-ashamed

Love that is un-inhibited

Love that is oh, so very alive.

That is the Love I felt beneath my fingertips, and dried with my hair.

That is the Love at whose feet I sat to learn,

and the Love whom I followed to the cross.

That is the Love who stared his own death in the face, and still smiled at me as I poured out my offering of nard.

Can you smell the heavy, meaning-laden scent of nard? I know that I will never forget.

Thanks be to God

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