Wednesday 9 March 2016

The Stench of Life

Went out the door just the other day and there it was.  It shouldn’t have been, but it was.  It was too soon.  The end of February?  No, this is Alberta.

But it was unmistakable: the dank, musty smell of wet earth.  Some people may not think it’s the most pleasant smell, but it’s the smell of spring.  The stench of life.

Oh sure, there’s still time for winter to make a resurgence.  It was even colder again the next day.  But you’ve smelled it, too, haven’t you?

Does it surprise you?  Catch you off guard?  It’s a little early.  Remember last year?  Well, last year wasn’t too bad, but remember the year before?  Brrr.

Doesn’t matter, now, though, because it’s there.  To me, it’s the smell of spring.  And that means the seemingly dead earth is coming back to life again.  Breathe it in.  Savour it.  What does it mean to you?

The Gospel of John tells a story of Jesus stopping for dinner at Lazarus’ house before entering Jerusalem for the last time.  That’s the Lazarus that Jesus had earlier raised from the dead, by the way.  At the dinner, Lazarus’ sister Mary takes a container of nard, a very expensive perfumed oil, and anoints Jesus’ feet with it.  And “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3).

Judas challenges the waste of something so expensive that could have been sold to help the poor.  But Jesus says “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” (John 12:7-8).

Think about the imagery here for a minute.  Mary anoints his feet, but this is more than the hospitable act of washing his feet.  Jesus suggests that she had bought the nard for his burial.  So is Mary foreshadowing his death?  The Temple authorities have already decided to kill Jesus.  But Jesus wasn’t the only “dead man walking” at supper.  According to this passage from John, they also plan to kill Lazarus because of all the attention he’s getting (John 12:10-11).  After all, Jesus had raised him from the dead and he was attracting a crowd.  This meal was like a very public last supper.

And “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

Good thing, don’t you think.  In the story of Lazarus, his family is reluctant to open the tomb because “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (John 11:39).  Was Lazarus free of the stench of death when he was raised to life?  Maybe.  But people came to see him because he had been dead.  Dead.  Now he wasn’t.

And here’s Jesus, surrounded by friends and followers, very much alive, radiantly smelling of an expensive perfume, a perfume he says is for his burial.  But it’s Jesus who says that and Mary isn’t keeping it for his burial, she’s using it now.  In front of everyone.

Perhaps instead of giving it to death, Mary decided to give it to life.  Mary honours Jesus with an outrageous act of gratitude for the life Jesus gave back to Lazarus, gave back to all of them.

That smell in the air?  It’s the sweet scent of new life.