The Sweet Aroma of Love

Baby powder.

All I have to do is say the word, and you remember the scent, don’t you? It’s clean and cuddly, light, a happy smell.

When we stick our nose into a fresh towel, we want to smell the equivalent of a spring morning with mist on the grass, the rising sun and chirping birds.

And when it comes to body wash, we seem to like the smell of grapefruit, but not banana – too much heavy sweetness, not enough citrus notes for balance, perhaps?

Smells are big business. The smell industry generates $20 billion a year globally, developing and selling the fragrances that go into our laundry detergents, soaps and shampoos, after shaves and perfumes, and a host of other aromatic products, including so-called air fresheners and new-car smell for your aging vehicle.

Luca Turin is a man whose nose has the olfactory equivalent of perfect pitch. He  can detect and name even the subtlest nuances in a bouquet of fragrances, and, not surprisingly, his hobby are perfumes. And he doesn’t just love to smell them, he writes about them as few others can. In 1992, he wrote the first-ever perfume guide, and he continues to write perfume reviews.

Turin can give raves to fragrances he likes, e.g. “Thanks to Rive Gauche, mortals can at last know the scent of the goddess Diana’s bath soap.” He also knows how to slam fragrances he hates, e.g. “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.” According to Turin, Gucci’s Rush “smells like an infant’s breath mixed with his mother’s hair spray,” and it is left to the reader to decide whether that is something she might want to wear or not.

It is not easy to describe an aroma or an odor, it is much easier to evoke memories in the minds of listeners and readers.

Baby powder. You know the smell. Moth balls. Shoe polish. Hot cinnamon buns.  Freshly brewed coffee.

In the gospel of John, there is a beautiful 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 know very well the aroma surrounding that breakfast on the beach, that blend of smoke, grilled fish, and warm bread.

Today’s passage from John is more intentional in drawing our attention to the fragrance of the perfume that filled the house (John 12:3). 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 short time ago Jesus had brought life to their house. The sisters had sent him a message regarding Lazarus, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill,” and when he arrived, he found that his friend had already been in the tomb four days. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to Jesus, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

Jesus said, “Take away the stone,” and then he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” and he restored him to life.

In the gospel of John, there are only two smells, two instances where our attention is drawn to the scent surrounding the scene, and both happen in Bethany, in and around the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There are only two smells, the stench of death and the fragrance of extravagant love, and the way John tells the story gives us a hint which one will fill the house in the end.

Jesus came to Bethany, just two miles outside of Jerusalem, knowing full well that his opponents in the city planned to put him to death. Death was closing in on him. He knew that this might well be their last supper together. 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 at Jesus’ feet and poured the content of the jar on his feet, a pound of perfume made of pure nard – don’t you wish you knew the smell of nard? Don’t you wish you had words to describe the fragrance that filled the house at that moment of love poured out in the face of death?

Judas objected.

“Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

It sounds like the voice of moral outrage, the voice of thrift and good stewardship, of advocacy and service to the poor – but Judas didn’t know what Mary knew.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus said, brushing all objections aside. “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.”

Death was closing in, and Mary knew it, and she responded with lavish love. She could have poured the fragrant oil on his head, anointing him king of Israel, preparing him for a triumphal procession 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 responded with lavish extravagance, pouring out her love and gratitude, because she knew the extravagance of God because of this man. She knew what lay ahead for him, she knew that he would hold nothing back, and she acted on it. And so her gesture of boundless generosity became a sign of his life poured out for all, a witness to the excessive nature of divine love and mercy.

Just as Jesus began his ministry with wine freely poured at a wedding when the wine gave out, so the ministry of his friends began with this lavish outpouring of love and caring. It was and remains the only appropriate response to God’s giving.

In the next chapter, John tells us about the last evening Jesus spent with his disciples in the city. It was during supper, in an act curiously reminiscent of Mary’s, that Jesus got up, took off his robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel. Then he put on his robe and returned to the table.

“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 was the first to live that new commandment, and she did it even before it was given, because she knew who Jesus was.

The house of Jesus’ friends, just outside the city where murderous plans were being plotted, the house of Jesus’ friends became a house of witness and worship. Those who lived there remembered the stench of death, but what lingered was the sweet aroma of love, a fragrance even more difficult to describe than nard.

When I think about the aroma of extravagant love, one of my favorite movies comes to mind, Babette’s Feast.

In a small town in 19th century Denmark lived an old man and his two daughters. The man, called the Dean, was the leader of a small Lutheran sect, 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 churchgoers are bickering and 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, looks like a beggar, and she’s Catholic. As they get accustomed to her, however, they realize that she is strong and kind. They show her how to prepare the plain dishes to which they are accustomed, and Babette tweaks them just a little; the poor love her cooking.

One day Babette finds out she won the lottery in Paris just as the sisters are trying to plan a celebration of what would have been their father’s hundredth birthday. Babette 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 strange bottles, boxes, and 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 then 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. They step outside and, holding hands in a large circle, they 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 was once the chef at one of Paris’s finest restaurants, but when the sisters ask about her return to Paris now that she has money, she answers that she will never go back to Paris. The sisters are relieved but surprised. And then they learn that Babette has spent her entire lottery winnings on this one meal.

She has given it all away in one extravagant gesture of hospitality. What lingers is the sweet aroma of love – still difficult to describe, but the recipe is so easy to remember.