Whenever I visit folks in the hospital, I follow the signs that are everywhere – Foam In/Foam Out; maybe this is something you’ve noticed in your own times visiting or being in a hospital, or maybe you don’t have any sort of framework for what this instruction might mean. But in all hospitals now, there will be a hand sanitizing station on the outside of the room and just inside each door to a patient’s room. I follow these signs not just because I tend to be a rule-follower, but because the time that I spent working in a hospital as a Chaplain as part of my seminary training deeply formed me. In fact I can still describe to you the sound each machine made, and how the cool foam coated your hands with a protectant, but the most prominent memory is of the smell of the sanitizing foam.
The first time I was called to talk with a family for whom death of the matriarch was not far off, I remember the smell as I rubbed my hands together as I greeted a room full of mourning generations. We talked a bit about what was to come, and then, as things do when someone is close to death, they began to tell me stories of kayak trips gone terribly wrong of times of deep poverty and deeper faith, and how this woman was at the center of it all. In this room full of too many people, each carried their own memories and their own purposes. Nurses floated in and out, slowly and silently preparing for death in the way that they are trained to do. And I was struck by how vast and varied all of our differing experiences were in that room, and how God was present in it in ways that were far beyond our imagination. Nothing reminds me of that moment like the smell of that particular hospital brand hand-sanitizing foam.
This is how I imagine the way the disciples recall the scene we heard read from the gospel according to John today. I wonder if the smell of the perfume that Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet would remind Lazarus of his sisters’ faithfulness in the wake of Christ’s death. I wonder if the smell of it began to serve as a prompt for Judas to regret his thieving choices. I wonder if the smell of the fragrance began to be a source of grounding for Mary, a reminder of the one whom she loved and followed in the days immediately following his crucifixion, as grief overwhelmed all of the disciples.
We can all imagine it—this is one of the most visually engaging stories of Christ and his disciples. Sitting around a familiar table not just with the Christ, but also with Lazarus not long after he was raised from the dead. The smell of the food, the sound of the dishes, of conversation that continually turned to what we now call the passion of Christ. Jesus who was avoiding being found because it was not yet his time while Martha is serving and Mary opens a jar of perfume that costs not just a lot, but nearly a year’s salary a lot. She kneels next to Christ and anoints his feet, wiping it with her hair. A deeply intimate act that can signify not only Christ’s kingship, but also his impending death. And the smell begins to fill the whole room with its fragrant scent, and then Judas speaks, begging the question of how dare this woman waste such a valuable item? How dare she not sell it and give money to the poor, a bad-faith question with which he hoped to fool the others, comes from a place not of charity but of greed, as he was already actively stealing from the money bag.
We can all imagine this scene with its abundant details and characters, but I would also ask if perhaps there are ways in which this scene goes beyond our imagination. It is hard, perhaps, to imagine Jesus allowing Judas to remain at the table, knowing not only the theft already committed, but also the betrayal soon to come. It is hard to imagine the ways in which Lazarus would be post death and resurrection – was his skin restored and the smell gone or did death linger on one of Christ’s greatest miracles? It is hard to imagine Mary’s faithfulness and willingness to use something so valuable most of us would store away and use sparingly. It is hard to imagine the ways in which God is preparing us for an abundance far beyond our own imagination of what can happen around our table as well.
In our last week of Lent before Holy Week, we begin to prepare, much like Mary did in our gospel text, for the long walk to the cross. We turn this week to the ways in which God is preparing us for an abundance far beyond our imagination – not just in the perfumy ways of Mary’s act of devotion, but also in the complicated ways of allowing Judas to remain at the table. We turn this week to the abundance that God is cultivating in us.
This classic scene before Christ’s crucifixion requires us to let our imaginations run; it requires that we somehow leave space not just for the perfume of devotion, but also for the potential stink of resurrected death and for our fellow disciples who so deeply miss the mark that they would question God’s abundance with thieving desires. This scene makes us face the reality that not only was Christ present to Mary’s outpouring faithfulness, but also for Judas who was failing to be convicted to the Way of the Cross. This scene requires that we accept that God’s abundance is not just for the Mary’s, but also for the Judas’ – that God, in God’s goodness, holds a future that lies far beyond what we can imagine, and that this is for what we are preparing.
We have two more long weeks till Easter Sunday; two more long weeks of walking the path to the cross but believe me when I say that God is cultivating in us, both you individually, but also in us collectively, a sense of Easter joy that lies far beyond what we can imagine or hope. There is something so divinely elaborate that even a jar of perfume that costs a year’s salary is not enough to fully capture the imagination. This is the invitation of today: to let this sense of possibility and hope that God is cultivating in us be our foundation, to let this sense of joyful imagination to begin to break through these last couple of weeks of Lent; to slowly begin to turn and to remember that where we are is not where we are called to go. To remember that through life’s varied and swift changes, that our hearts can be fixed upon the abundant imagination of God, the only place where true joy can be found. For the days and weeks to come, this is my hope and prayer, that we will allow God’s abundant imagination guide our heart, our actions, and our choices so that we may be ready to step into that true joy when Easter finally comes.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on April 3, 2022 for Lent 5C on John 12:1-8.