Monday of Holy Week
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Jesus said, "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." When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
There are moments I will always remember. I’m not talking about simply remembering the fact that they occurred. I mean remembering everything about the experience. If I close my eyes, I can find myself back in these moments. The moment I knelt down and asked Laura to marry me. The moments I first saw my daughters’ faces. The moment I first learned that Sophie was sick with a possibly fatal disease. These moments, and many others, I can see again, feel again, even smell again.
You might have these moments as well. I hope you do. Life changing moments in which everything your body sensed has been trapped forever in your mind.
The disciples of Jesus had these moments, and many of them occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life. While John’s Gospel covers material that happened over at least a three year period, almost half his story occurs during those seven days.
As John relates the story, the memories of that week seem clear and fresh. While his language is often airy and philosophical, the basic humanity of his connection to Jesus comes through. A great example of this is found in the story above. Yes, this is a powerful narrative of the love and thankfulness that Mary pours out on the man who brought her brother back from the dead. But I want to point out the recollections of John himself for a moment.
Notice that John remember who did what--that Lazarus sat and Martha served. When he talks about Judas, I can almost feel John’s anger (he was about to betray him, he was a thief, he didn’t care about the poor). But the one thing that strikes me most in this story is this phrase: “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
What theological purpose does this sentence serve? What difference would it have made to the Church’s mission if that phrase had been left out? In a purely rational way, I don’t think it would have made any real difference. So why is it there?
I imagine John, dictating this Gospel. Years have passed, and he is remembering his friend. Not just his Lord and God, but his dear friend. The man he loved, the man who loved him back. He can close his eyes and see him. He can remember just where he was, and where his friends were. He can remember what they were eating, what they were laughing about. He can remember the house, and the lamps, and the table. And he can remember that smell. It’s a smell that brings all his emotions back (as smells often do). Remembering that scent, he misses his friend yet again.
I am thankful to John. I am thankful that he didn’t just record Jesus’ magnificent theological claims (I am the Way, the Truth and the Life). He also remembered his humanity, and passed that part of the story on to us as well. This makes me feel more connected to Jesus. It makes me want to close my eyes and imagine that I am there with John and Mary and Lazarus. It makes me want to smell that fragrance, too. And in my mind, I almost can.