"Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack," writes Vladimir Nabokov1.
As I write this, it is 17 degrees outside and I have just walked around our beautiful Incarnation church building. And it smells outside…..! Not in an unpleasant, hold your nose type of way. It is indeed pleasant and I take in two or three deep breathes. The smell is vaguely familiar and one I have not experienced in many months. It smells like fresh earth and new life. It is a smell that lifts me up and announces that there are changes coming. This fresh, awakening smell transports me to a different time and place. It smells like the transition between nothing and life.
Smell is a powerful memory sense. Smell can illicit emotions and feelings unlike any of the other senses. I recall walking into the parish hall in Saskatoon where we had lived when I was a boy, some 30 years after the fact. It smelled the same and I immediately became a 10 year old boy again. Chanel No 5 perfume reminds me of my grandmother. Fresh baking bread is Aunt Greta.
What is it about smell? Those that please and those that repulse? Those that delight and those that distance? Those that anticipate and those that repel? We can’t choose to smell one thing over another. That is the point of smell. It takes control of us, taking over that which we’d rather be able to smell. It is just there and somehow, someway, you have to deal with it, whatever memory it brings back, whatever feeling it elicits, whatever good or bad effects it brings on.
That is the power of the sense of smell. It permeates our life with the good and the bad, the powerful and the painful, the delirious and the difficult.
And that is the power of the story in John’s Gospel this week, especially here and now looking forward to the last two weeks of Lent. “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair”- John 12:3. The smell of the perfume, costing almost a year’s wages, permeating every nook and cranny of that room. That smell, in contrast to the smell of death, which, by the way, is reclining on Jesus. The smell of love in the face of certain betrayal. The smell of extravagant love. Mary’s foreshadowed embodiment of Jesus’ commandment -- “love one another as I have loved you.” Abundant grace that thus far, only Jesus has been able to bestow.
A smell not to counteract death, erase death’s smell, or try to overpower its stench mentioned only verses before with the raising of Lazarus. But a scent to smell at the same time you can smell the scent of death. I wonder if this is the point. Smells don’t replace -- they contrast, they tell the truth about our human existence.
All too human smell is, which may be part of the point. Lest we need a reminder that Jesus is truly the Word made flesh, here it is. Caught between the smell of love and the smell of the cross is Jesus. There is no one or the other. Both have to exist so as to reinforce that the incarnation really matters.
It holds together Lent and Easter so very tightly that you wonder how you can separate the two -- and the point is that you can’t. In our lives there is life and there is death; there is joy and there is sorrow; there is hope and there is despair. One does not exist without the other -- that is the truth of the Incarnation. And, that is the very hope of the Incarnation, if we are truthful. Jesus is the new hope, the new life, the new joy that transports us to a different time and place. Jesus is the transition between the nothingness that life can be and life that is above all else.
1. Quoted in Rachel Herz, The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell (New York: HarperCollins, 2007),