Updated: Jul 31
Lent 5, 2022
Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
April 3, 2022
Good morning, St. Aidan’s. This morning we have come to the fifth Sunday of Lent, the penultimate stretch before Palm Sunday and Holy Week carry us into the mystery at the very heart of our tradition. We have traveled far and heard much this season, from Ash Wednesday and the desert temptation, to the brooding wings of the longing Jesus, to the parable of the fig tree and Moses’ holy encounter at the burning bush, to last week’s story of the Prodigal Son. And now the last few steps lie before us. We are about to be carried over a certain threshold, and our readings evoke that, inviting us to sharpen our senses as we press forward – to use the language from Paul’s letter to the Philippians – into this holy time. I’m reminded of an exercise I experienced as a teen at a Christian summer camp in the Santa Cruz mountains, not far from here. With a group, we made our way along the path of a Redwood ravine and then stopped. Then we were asked to take turns closing our eyes as another camper in our group took us by the hand and led us further along in this hike. I wondered initially if I would be afraid, but I remember the sense of release as I let myself be led in the quiet. I noticed that as I let go of sight, other senses heightened: the sound of careful footsteps; the touch of cool, moist air on my cheek; the scent of Bay Laurel. There was a sense of sensory accompaniment as we made our way into God’s mysterious possibility.
We are invited to open ourselves to that possibility by our first reading from the prophet Isaiah. To waken us from the thrall of fatigue that may have come over us in this wilderness, Isaiah reminds us of God’s ability to “make a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (Isaiah 43:16). Splash! Wake up! Yet not so much to “remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” as if the parting of the Red Sea and the thwarting of Pharoah’s army will simply repeat (43:18). Rather, the God who held the sea at bay now declares that water will pave their path: “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (43:20) God calls us to new alertness: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (43:19) God is not done with us yet, Isaiah says. A new chapter is afoot. Open your hearts. Do you not perceive it?
Our gospel passage invites us further into a heightening of our senses as the threshold of a momentous turn draws near. Not long before our story, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, an action that had placed Jesus that much more on the radar of authorities who wanted him dead. Having subsequently retreated with his disciples to the town of Ephraim, which John pointedly describes as close to the wilderness (John 11:54), Jesus had now emerged on the Saturday evening or the Sunday – six days – before the Passover. With his disciples Jesus had returned to Bethany for a dinner in his honor at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, this family that was so beloved to him. As the group sat at table, we hear, “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair” (12:3). It is an extraordinary scene, and a defining one for Mary, as the Gospel of John depicts her. Even at the beginning of the Lazarus resurrection story, Mary had been identified by this later scene. That story had begun, “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (11:1-2). Mary’s action of anointing in our story also emerges from a decisive moment in Jesus’ earlier intervention in Lazarus’ death. It was when Mary had met Jesus in the road, weeping with others of her community and repeating her sister Martha’s statement, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” that Jesus had begun to weep and then turned to the raising of Lazarus (11:32-35).
There is a deep connection between Mary and Jesus that carries into today’s story as Mary kneels before him. The version of this story in Luke depicts the women who anoints Jesus as weeping (Luke 7:37-38), and while that is not the case in our version, the emotional intimacy of the moment very much comes through. What especially intensifies this moment is its sheer bodiliness: Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Symbolically, that which extends out from the top of the body—the head, what touches the air around us – now enfolds the bottom of the body— the feet, that part of the body that is most likely to touch the ground and carry us in and through the world. Mary unbinds and uses her hair to help anoint these feet that had encountered so much and would soon carry Jesus into Jerusalem, into death. It seems no accident, as well, that as part of that final chapter of his mortal life, Jesus would wash the feet of his disciples as they would prepare to make their way through their teacher’s suffering and out into the ministry that lay before them (John 13:1-17).
Already the extension of our story’s action beyond Mary and Jesus to others is afoot through the invitation of the senses. The pure nard with which Mary was anointing Jesus’ feet was intensely scented, so much so that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (12:3b). The emotional intensity of the moment has already been signaled by the hair and feet, as well as by the sheer expensive excess of the ointment (worth 300 denarii, we are told), disingenuously criticized by Judas for its utter impracticality (12:5). But the scent is what truly enables this story spill over, far beyond the page, opening us to the unfolding of its mystery. It is well known that scent operates on our memory at an especially deep level. Think of scents that you associate with particular experiences in you life, how when you smell that scent, you are released beyond wherever your mind had previously held you pegged down.
If I ask myself this question, so many scent-tinted scenarios come to mind. I think of my grandparents and how my grandfather always gave my grandmother a bottle of Channel #5 for each major occasion – birthday or Christmas. Apparently, my grandmother had worn this perfume at some earlier point in her life—each time he gave it to her, I can’t help but think he must have been hearkening back to this memory (as I don’t actually remember her wearing it—what I do remember is a profusion of unopened boxes of this perfume in her bedroom). I do remember the scent of my grandfather’s after shave, bright green in its glass bottle—no idea what it was called but I would recognize it anywhere, were I to smell it now. The scent would waft out of the bathroom as I waited for him to come out and play with me on Saturday visits. Or I think of the scent of ointments to assist in athletic bodily repair. Recently I came across a mysterious box at my mom’s house, hand-labeled “Bay to Breaker’s Survival Kit.” Vintage maybe the 70s or 80s? Clearly a gag gift, but whether when I ran it or my dad did, I don’t know. In it was a combination of Doctor Scholls foot powder, Speed Stick Deoderant, and Ben Gay. Never could I forget the scent of that much-used ointment, especially early in the basketball season. An ointment to assist in our straining forward, unmistakably scented as we run the race set before us (as the letter to the Hebrews puts it - 12:1), embracing the mystery of Christ’s journey.
And this sense of preparing, of opening the senses for the journey that lay before Jesus, underlies Mary’s anointing. Jesus would now be turning to Jerusalem, to his arrest, his deep suffering, his death. And we, all of us, by the evocative permeability of scent, are invited to prepare for that journey. Behold, says God, I am about to do a new thing, do you not perceive it? Do you not sense it? Open your hearts, we are invited. Open your senses to the mystery of newness of life emerging in and through death. Now it begins to sprout, emerging in the most unlikely places, even in the midst of these dangerous, difficult days. Breathe in, breathe out. Know yourself to be accompanied at the deepest level. Close your eyes and walk with me, God says. Hold one another’s hands as you make your way into the unknown. Behold, I am with you. Behold, new life is on the way.