A couple of years ago, my wife Tammy was out of town for the weekend, and I had been traveling a lot for my job in theological education at the time, so while she had gotten a lot of one-on-one time with our son Liam, I had not. So Liam and I were both looking forward to the time together and we wanted to do something special. But it was a cold and rainy weekend, and not much good for going outside, so we were trying to come up with something special to do inside. “We could bake something,” I offered. “Okay, but let’s make up our own thing,” Liam responded; “I don’t want to just make cookies or whatever.” That sounded like less of a good idea to me; I’ve always approached cooking as more of a science than an art, so while following a recipe was easy, simply creating something out of the air seemed likely to end in disappointment for everyone.
Eventually, we compromised, looking online for a recipe that we would then enhance with our creativity. After some research, we stumbled across a savory cheddar cheese bread with caramelized onions. “Ooh, that looks good,” Liam said; “but instead of cheddar, let’s do it with different kinds of cheese. You can never go wrong with adding more cheese.” I was pleased that he had learned such an important life lesson so early, so I agreed immediately, and after deciding to make it a four-cheese bread and call it Quattro Formaggi because that sounded fancier, we decided to add Italian sausage, too, so that the bread would become like a meal in itself.
The tricky part was caramelizing the onions, though. I had never done that before, never even seen someone do it. But we live in the age of YouTube, so we simply looked up a video on how to do it and followed suit. So I chopped up a bunch of onions, piles of them, really; I was surprised at how many onions were actually required to get the amount we needed in caramelized form. As I chopped and chopped, Liam quickly sifted the other ingredients for the bread and then watched me. “Are you sure we need that many onions?” he asked at one point, watching the pile go higher and higher. But after some time, I had them all chopped, and we started the caramelizing process. That turned out surprisingly well, though, and eventually we had everything together and put the bread in the oven.
When the timer went off, we pulled it out and let it cool, and finally I cut a few slices off and we sat down. “Here goes nothing,” I said, and we both took a bite at the same time. And I’ll never forget his expression as the taste of the bread registered and he looked over at me, smiling in delight and a bit of surprise. “Wow, we really did good,” he said after swallowing the first bite. And we had; we had done really good. Not just with the bread, but with the time: with the weekend and especially with the sharing of this moment of a little mutual boldness and creativity.
Later that week, with the bread long since devoured, I was in a hotel room on my next work trip, trying to fall asleep, when I noticed a faint aroma that was both sweet and a little sharp. Puzzled, I sat up and tried to find it. And then I realized what it was. Despite having washed my hands numerous times since then, the smell of all those onions I had chopped was still in my fingers somehow. As it turns out, onions and other plants like it (like garlic or leeks), emit a compound when they are cut up that actually dissolves into the skin a bit, and can linger for days, depending on your body chemistry, because it cannot simply be washed off. And so that night, far from home and family, I drifted off to sleep with the faint smell of onions in my nose, remembering that wonderful weekend with my son. And ever since, when I smell caramelized onions, it always takes me back there, to that weekend of joy and creativity and love with my son, right as he was preparing to go from being an elementary school child to a middle school youth.
It’s no secret that memory has a lingering scent. Our sense of smell is by far the most evocative of the senses when it comes to memory. You know what I’m talking about. All of us, at some point, have the experience of catching wind of a wafting scent and being transported immediately to another time, a time of particular emotional significance to us. The smell of the beach takes us back to family holidays when we were little. The aroma of a food that was a parent’s signature dish has us suddenly in a childhood bed, awakening to a day of untold possibility and family love as soon as we charge down the stairs in our memory and leap into our chair at the kitchen table to be served. Someone’s perfume or cologne whisks us back to a first date with a future spouse or the last time we saw a lost love. It’s startling how quick and how powerful it can be, all based on catching that particular scent, and carrying us from the present to the experiential memory of some profound experience of love.
It’s no accident, then, that Mary chose a pound of precious perfume to make this memory that John records in our New Testament lesson. The perfume is called nard, and it was (and still is) an extraordinarily powerful and expensive perfume. And all this was quite deliberate by Mary; she wanted something that Jesus would remember. Jesus, after all, was not simply her Lord and teacher; he was the one who had recently raised her brother Lazarus from the dead, calling him forth out of his tomb after he had been lain there for four days, long enough that her sister Martha had warned Jesus when he approached the tomb that there was already a stench from the body inside. It was an act so shocking and so demonstrative of Jesus’ power and identity that it convinced his enemies that they needed to have him executed before he changed everything. Which, of course, they would succeed in doing just a few days after this scene.
This story takes place the evening before Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph to be hailed as a king by the people, only to be abandoned and rejected by them soon after. So: here, between Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and going off to be executed for that and other “crimes” before being resurrected himself, Mary and Martha are having a dinner for him, and Mary wants to give him something to remember, not just with his mind but with his heart, something so filled with intimate gratitude and love that it’s almost uncomfortable, with her pouring out this astonishing amount of expensive perfume onto Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair.
Judas, at least, is uncomfortable, chastising Mary for wasting something so valuable like this when it could have been sold to feed the poor (or line his pockets, as John notes in an editorial comment). Jesus responds by affirming Mary, though. Not because the poor are unimportant; there are some who look for excuses to avoid Jesus’ clear and consistent commands for his followers to love and serve the poor that have deliberately misinterpreted this statement that way, but that’s obviously not what he means. No, what he’s saying is precisely the opposite. Mary has recognized that, because of humanity’s ongoing indifference to the suffering of others, there will always be poor people to serve. But their time directly with Jesus was coming to an end soon, and Mary wanted to make her devotion to him and love for him clear before that end, to create a lasting memory, a lasting memorial.
Which she did; because nard is far more potent and powerful than onions. Which means that, for days after her act of love on this evening, Jesus would have still been smelling the nard that she had poured so copiously over his feet. As he rode the colt into the city the next day, he would have smelled and remembered. As he walked the streets of Jerusalem, teaching and arguing, he would have smelled and remembered. As he sat around the table at the Last Supper, he would have smelled and remembered. As he stood surrounded by jeering guards as they whipped and mocked him, he would have smelled and remembered. As he trudged through the city carrying his own cross, as he was nailed to that cross and lifted high, he still would have still smelled and remembered something good, something pure, something comforting and loving. And so would she; it was her hands, after all, that had poured out all that nard in the first place; her hair that had wiped it up. That whole last week before Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary would have been smelling that perfume and remembering that act of extravagant love and thankfulness that she had shown to Jesus.
As Lent begins to draw to a close, as we prepare to begin observing Holy Week next Sunday with the celebration of Palm Sunday, the question I want all of us to ask ourselves is, what does it mean for our devotion to Jesus to be so strong that it cannot be washed off our hands? To do our ministry as individuals and as a church in such a way that we do not simply do good things, faithful things, important things, but we enact our love for Jesus so deeply and intently that so that the rich, sweet scent of it lingers for all to breathe in? How are we doing that already? How else can we be, until the whole house is filled with the fragrance of it? The truth is, we’ll spend the rest of our lives answering those questions, if we do it right. But even so, we’ll also never lose the lingering scent, as long as we keep coming back to the source: to remember, and celebrate, and rejoice in the presence and power of Jesus once again.