Fragrance to Inhale
"The Resurrection does not speak to us not through ideas, concepts, reasons – but by enveloping us, winning us over, in exactly the same way as the right fragrance used in the right place and in the right way takes hold of us: before we know what has happened, it reaches our nostrils, enables us to sense something, a presence, a feeling, a mood, a novelty".
One of the most striking plays I have ever seen is Angels in America by Tony Kushner. Some of you might have seen the magnificent 8-hour long production which was performed in theatres in London in 2017 – or the celebrated 2003 TV adaptation starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. Beside its main topic, the height of the AIDS crisis in the 80s in NYC, this play re-enacts Jacob’s fight with God in the book of Genesis. Some of the most irreverent (some people might say blasphemous) pages of the play end up speaking about God with unrivalled spiritual depth, and beauty.
Now, among its many memorable dialogues, there is a mischievous scene of seduction between two of the main characters, Louis and Joe, which is based on the enticement of smell.
“Smell – says Louis- is… an incredibly complex and underappreciated physical phenomenon. […] Smelling. Is desiring. We have five senses, but only two that go beyond the boundaries … of ourselves. When you look at someone, it’s just bouncing light, or when you hear them, it’s just sound waves, vibrating air, or touch is just nerve ending tingling. Know what a smell is? […] It’s made of the molecules of what you’re smelling. Some part of you, where you meet the air, is airborne” towards me.
And so on… I am not sure I can quote the rest of this dialogue in a sermon… - it is a page of seduction after all, quite erotically charged. But you got the main idea: smell is different from the other senses – it is more like taste – because molecules emanating from the other person get into you – you inhale something of the other person.
I can’t help making a connection between this scene and the opening lines of the only book in the bible where God is never mentioned – if not, maybe, in an exceedingly cryptic way at the end – a book which monks in the Middle Ages thought should be read with discretion and never in the evening, namely the Song of Songs. The lover (a girl) says about the beloved:
“Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes: your name is like perfume poured out” – and few lines later she says about herself: “While the king was at his table, my perfume spread its fragrance” (Ct 1.3,12).
We can smell perfumes from a bottle, but their fragrance comes alive when it reacts with the warmth of bodies and spreads from there. Then what we inhale is not just a pleasant smell, but – as Louis says in the passage I quoted above- molecules of the other person. And if the perfume is chosen well, that is if the perfume matches our personality, our character, or our mood, then it tells something –or a lot- about us, about who we are. We understand then the lover’s sentence in the Song of Songs: “Your name is like a perfume poured out”.
The fragrance that fills the house in Bethany when Mary anoints Jesus with a pound of costly perfume is not just pure nard – it is pure nard that emanates from Jesus’ skin, it is “Jesus’ name poured out” – and we know that in Semitic culture the name expresses who the person really is. Now, in these pages of John’s Gospel, the fragrance emanating from Jesus’ body is the Resurrection – because, we are told, Jesus is the Resurrection.
We should take notice of this: John does not simply say that Jesus can raise people from the dead, but strangely that he is the resurrection. It is not by accident that when this perfume is poured out Jesus is the guest of Martha, Mary, and especially of Lazarus, “whom he had raised from the dead” (12.1). These were not just Jesus’ followers or disciples, they were his friends, people who understood him, gave him rest, comfort, laughter – who took care of him, fed him, made him feel safe. With them he was not on a mission, he could truly relax. When Lazarus died, Jesus grieved, cried, was upset (11.33, 38). On that occasion, when Martha had told him that she believed her brother would rise in a distant future, Jesus had declared to her: “I am the resurrection and the life” (12.25). The Resurrection is not just something that Jesus does, it is who he is – so that the Resurrection is this fragrance emanating from Jesus’ body, which fills the house, that is the church in all places an in all times. Mary is prophesying here – and importantly what she is foretelling is not Jesus’s death, but his victory over it.
This is confirmed by another subtext in this passage. When Jesus had asked that the stone laid across the entrance of Lazarus’ tomb should be taken away, people replied to him that the dead body had been there four days and the bad odour would have been unbearable (11.39). Nothing conveys the horror of death more than this detail – the stench. The body of the person we loved becomes an object of revulsion. A way of keeping the dead body in the realms of the living a little longer consisted in the practice referred to in Jesus’ answer to Judah: the perfume should have been used for the burial. To keep the bodies at home and approachable for as long as possible ancient cultures anointed them with prodigious quantities of balms.
Jesus’ body would not stay dead long enough to need this because he is the Resurrection, because his love is stronger than death, as it is said at the end of the Song of Songs. Mary knows this and decides to pour the perfume destined to Jesus’ burial on his living, warm body, so that this life can fill the whole house.
This, I think, might be the reason why we read this passage on the eve of Passiontide.
We cannot understand what the resurrection is - maybe with a bit of probing we might even have to acknowledge that we find hard to believe in it. And this is normal. The Resurrection is one of these things which speaks to us not through ideas, concepts, reasons – but by enveloping us, winning us over, in exactly the same way as the right fragrance used in the right place and in the right way takes hold of us: before we know what has happened, it reaches our nostrils, enables us to sense something, a presence, a feeling, a mood, a novelty.
We know how some animals can smell even earthquakes! What greater earthquake than the Resurrection!
The same thing applies to the king of the Song of Songs in the sentence I quoted above: “While the king was at his table, my perfume spread its fragrance” (Ct 1.12) says the girl. Countless wives and concubines, with their faces veiled, were sitting at the king’s table, and yet he can sense the unique fragrance of the woman he loves even before he is able to see her face.
The Resurrection does the same to us. When we try to think it, our minds go blank. If it cannot be understood, though, the Resurrection can be inhaled – it is a fragrance that will fill our churches and our lives in the next couple of weeks.
There is going to be a wealth of celebrations: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and then Easter Sunday. You might be tempted to pick and choose – or go straight to Easter Sunday. It would be a great pity and a huge huge loss for your Christian life. Don’t think that it is enough to confess the Resurrection, to say that you believe in it. You can only experience it indirectly through exposing your five senses to images, sounds, smells, flavours, objects. You will have to let your feet to be washed, kneel, touch and even kiss the rough wood of the cross – you will have to sit in darkness, then gather around a fire, feel its warm, borrow its light. You will have to hear the lament in the singing, listen at least twice to the whole narration of how Jesus was betrayed, judged, flogged, crucified and buried. And you will have to rejoice in the singing of the Alleluia, the sound of bells when the Paschal joy will finally be released on Easter day.
You will have to expose yourself to all of this, because all these things together are the costly bottle of perfume which every year, like Mary, the church pours on Jesus’ feet.
“What a waste of time” or “Is such lavishness really needed?” or “Better spend this time with your family, or resting” Judah would say.
Jesus’ reply is worth noticing: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”.
During Passiontide we have Jesus, we have the fragrance emanating from his body in our lengthy, magnificent, ancient liturgies. Let’s make sure we are there to inhale all this, or we will miss the Resurrection – and our Easter celebration will be vacuous, our Alleluia will be sad, joyless, and our hope will have shrunk a bit more.