Baby powder. All I have to do is say the word, and the memory of the scent arises in an instant, doesn’t it? It’s a clean and light smell, and to me it’s a happy smell. Baby powder. Another smell that makes me happy is summer air after a thunder storm. If I could capture and bottle that scent, I think I’d be a wealthy man. Proctor & Gamble would put it in their laundry detergents, and you’d have a flash of happiness every time you dry your wet hair with a fresh towel or pull a t-shirt from the drawer. I’d come up with a way to put it in a spray bottle you can keep in your purse or glove box, and with just a spritz you could have a moment of ‘Aaaah - fresh air’, even while sitting in traffic with that old gym bag on the back seat.
Smells are big business. The smell industry generates billions of dollars a year globally, developing and selling the fragrances that go into laundry products, soaps and shampoos, perfumes and candles, cleaners and a host of other products.
You’ve heard about people with perfect pitch, right? They’re people who hear a note, sung or played on an instrument, and they can tell you exactly what it is. An A or a D or something just a shy of a C on the flat side. It’s pretty amazing. Luca Turin is a man with a nose like that. He can detect and name even the subtlest nuances in a bouquet of fragrances, and, not surprisingly, his hobby are perfumes. He doesn’t just love to smell them, he writes about them as few others can. He wrote the first-ever perfume guide, and continues to write perfume reviews. Now of course you’d expect words like citrus, leather, flowery, or musk in a perfume reviewer’s dictionary, but he’s a master. You can tell when he loves a fragrance, because he’ll say things like, “Thanks to Rive Gauche, mortals can at last know the scent of the goddess Diana’s bath soap.” It’s equally obvious when he hates a scent: “57 for Her is a sad little thing, an incongruous dried-prunes note with a metallic edge that manages the rare feat of being at once cloying and harsh.” Gucci’s Rush, he wrote, “smells like an infant’s breath mixed with his mother’s hair spray,” – it is left to the reader to decide whether that is something she might want to wear or rather not.
It is difficult to describe with words an aroma or an odor, but it is not difficult at all to evoke memories of a scent. All I have to do is say baby powder. Or hot cinammon rolls. Freshly brewed coffee.
John describes a scene of Jesus appearing to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. They had been out fishing, and coming ashore, they saw a charcoal fire, with fish on it, and bread. And Jesus said to them, “Come, and have breakfast” (John 21:9-12). We don’t know what the scene looked like in detail, but we easily catch a whiff of the aroma surrounding that breakfast on the beach, that blend of a cool breeze from the lake, smoke, grilled fish, and warm bread.
In today’s passage John draws our attention to the fragrance that filled the house. The house belonged to Jesus’ friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, and Jesus stopped in for dinner the day before he entered Jerusalem for the last time. Just a little while ago Jesus had brought life to their house. The sisters had sent him a message to let him know that Lazarus was very ill, and when he arrived, he found that his friend had already been in the tomb four days. Martha told him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
In the gospel of John, there are only two instances where our attention is drawn to the scent surrounding the scene; both times it’s in Bethany, in and around the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It’s like there is only the stench of death and the fragrance of love, and John wants us to remember which smell fills the house in the end.
Jesus came to Bethany, just two miles outside of Jerusalem, knowing full well that his opponents in the city were making plans to put him to death. He knew that this might well be his last meal with his good friends. Martha served, Lazarus was one of those at table with him, and no one had noticed that Mary had gone until she came back, holding a small jar in her hands. Without a word she knelt and poured the content of the jar on Jesus’ feet, a pound of perfume made of pure nard, and she wiped his feet with her hair.
Judas objected, pointing out that a pound of ointment could have fed a worker’s family for almost a year. It sounded like the voice of moral outrage, the voice of thrift and good stewardship, the voice of advocacy for the poor – it sounded like all that, but it didn’t have love in it. It was just ugly noise.
Death was closing in, and Mary knew it, and without saying a word she responded with lavish love. She could have poured the fragrant oil on Jesus’ head, anointing him king of Israel, preparing him for a triumphal entry into the city, but she knew where he was going. And so she dropped on her knees and poured the precious balm on his feet, preparing his body for burial. “Leave her alone,” Jesus said to those who would have prevented her. “Leave her alone.” Mary knew what lay ahead for him, she knew that he would hold nothing back, and she acted on it. She responded with lavish extravagance, pouring out her love and gratitude, because in this man she had come to know the extravagance of God.
Just a few days later, Jesus would spend the last evening with his disciples in the city. During supper, in an act curiously reminiscent of Mary’s, Jesus would get up, take off his robe, tie a towel around himself, pour water into a basin, and begin to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel. And we would say to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet. You also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as have done to you. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Mary of Bethany lived that new commandment, even before it was given. Her house, just outside the city where deathly plans were being plotted, had become a house of prophetic testimony. The stench of death was still a vivid memory there, but what lingered was the sweet scent of love’s extravagance. Mary reminds us that our talk about money for the poor is only chatter and clatter, unless the fragrant life of Jesus infuses our advocacy and our service. “Just as I have loved you,” he said, “you also should love one another.”
Babette’s Feast is one of my favorite movies, and it comes to mind often, especially when I think about the scent of generosity. In a small town in 19th century Denmark lived an old man and his two daughters. The man, called the Dean, was the pastor of a small Lutheran church, and he and his daughters led a puritanical life. After the Dean died, the sisters continued his legacy, keeping the church going and ministering to the poor.
Now, many years later, the aging members of the community are often bickering and rather fond of bringing up past wrongs. One day, a ragged-looking woman appears on the sisters’ doorstep with a letter from a friend. He explains that this woman, Babette Hersant, has fled Paris for her life. He hopes that the sisters will be kind enough to take her in as a maid, as she has nowhere else to go, having lost her husband and son in an uprising.
Babette assures the sisters that she will work as their maid and cook for nothing, and the sisters agree to the arrangement. At first, they are wary of their new maid. She speaks only French; she collects herbs in the fields and adds them to their food; and she’s Catholic. But as they get accustomed to her, they realize that she is strong and kind, besides being a talented cook who can work miracles with dried cod.
One day, just as the sisters are dreaming of planning a celebration of what would have been their father’s hundredth birthday, Babette finds out she won the lottery in Paris. She asks that they allow her to prepare the meal for the occasion, and the sisters reluctantly agree. Babette leaves for several days to purchase everything she needs, and after her return bottles, boxes, and strange ingredients begin arriving at the house.
Then the great day finally comes. The guests arrive, they chat and sing the Dean’s favorite hymns. And they sit down to the meal. Course after course, they eat food they never tasted before, they drink the finest wine, and around the table, frozen faces begin to melt, hardness softens, and the men and women of the congregation begin to make amends for their recent bickering and grudges. Arguments are dropped. Past misdeeds are forgiven. They laugh and embrace and sing under the stars.
After the guests have left, the sisters find Babette in the kitchen, surrounded by piles of dirty dishes, pots and pans. They thank her for the fine meal and for all of her work. She admits that she once was the chef at one of the finest restaurants in Paris, but when the sisters ask about her return to Paris, now that she has money, she tells them that she will never go back. The sisters are surprised but also relieved.
And then they realize that Babette has spent her entire lottery winnings on this one feast. She has given it all away—and yet something lingers. It’s a sweet fragrance, like the scent of nard on the Savior’s feet. Difficult to describe with words, but unforgettable.