Smells like heaven

Alice works for a big bank, but she feels most fully alive when she is involved in what she calls her other job. She works with a local non-profit whose mission is to feed the hungry by collecting and preparing perfectly good food from restaurants and stores, food that would otherwise be discarded. So it was not unusual for her to stop by a doughnut shop the other day, early in the morning, before she had to be at the office. She picked up three large boxes of doughnuts that hadn’t been sold the previous day; two boxes of sweet deliciousness on the backseat of her Honda, and another one on the passenger seat. The chef would transform this portion of the harvest into a fluffy, crusty baked dessert with a vanilla custard, and in just a few hours, volunteers would serve it as part of a nutritious, tasty and beautifully presented lunch to folks in the city who often go hungry. Alice was happy she could contribute to that daily feast. She was humming on her way to the bank, and circling down into the garage she had a smile on her face, and she was still smiling when she stepped on the elevator that would take her to the twelfth floor. Three more people got in the car when it stopped at the lobby, and one of them, briefcase in one hand, phone in the other, eyes on the screen, suddenly looked up, looked around with big, happy eyes, and said, “It smells like doughnuts in here. I LOVE doughnuts.” Yes, Alice blushed a little, but only for a fraction of a second. Then she told everybody on the way up about the joy and fulfilment she and others from across the city found by contributing to the daily feast for the city’s poor. When she got off on the twelfth floor, she had recruited the doughnut lover to come along on her next food-gleaning round, and she didn’t even try. Perhaps it’s not a silly thing to say that joy has a particular scent; that fulfilling work gives off an inviting aroma, and that there’s a fragrance that comes with loving your neighbor well.

Do you have a happy smell? I love the way the air smells after a thunder storm in the summer. Do you love waking up to the aroma of coffee and bacon coming from the kitchen? Do you remember when you buried your face in your child’s clothes at the end of the day and it smelled like laughter and life and love? I’m so glad nobody’s been able to bottle that scent and sell it, and I hope it’ll stay that way; I hope it’ll stay that way until the day when the kingdom of God has come in fullness and all of creation smells like life without end.

Bottled 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, haven’t you? 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 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 passion 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, bergamot or musk in a perfume reviewer’s dictionary, but Luca is 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.” Rush by Gucci, he wrote, “smells like an infant’s breath mixed with his mother’s hair spray,” – and he leaves it to the reader to decide whether that is something she might want to wear or rather not.[1]

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, freshly ironed shirt. Rain falling on hot pavement. Haystack. Doughnuts.

In the gospel of John there’s this scene where Jesus appears 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). It’s easy to catch a whiff of the aroma surrounding that breakfast on the beach, that blend of grilled fish, warm bread, and a cool breeze from the lake.

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 stayed with them 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 for 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 scenes 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. There is the stench of death and then there is 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 the food, 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 saying 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. She didn’t say a word. Judas, it appears, did all the talking. He objected, pointing out that for the cost of a pound of ointment a worker’s family could have been fed for almost a year. It sounded like the voice of moral protest, it sounded like advocacy for the poor – but it smelled rotten, because it didn’t have love in it. It was just ugly noise.

Mary knew Jesus’ hour had come, she knew that death was closing in. 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 with lavish extravagance, pouring out her love and gratitude, she honored the man whose whole life was a revelation of the extravagant love of God.

Just a few days later, Jesus would spend the last evening with his disciples in the city. During supper, in a sequence of actions reminiscent of what Mary had done, 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 he 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 I 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 action and instruction. The stench of death was still a vivid memory there, but what lingered, what infused every room and corner of the house was the sweet scent of love’s extravagance. On the day the kingdom of God has come in fullness, the scent that will fill all of creation is God’s love poured out freely as it has been since the beginning, and poured out again, finally poured out again, with fearless generosity, by the creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

“Just as I have loved you,” Jesus said, “you also should love one another.” I don’t know if Alice knows she’s doing the work of the kingdom. She’s finding joy and fulfilment in contributing to the daily feast of life. Smells like heaven.


[1] Quotes from Susan Adams, The Scent of Money