Sermon: Lent 5 RCL B – “Fragrance of Christ”

The Magdalen Anointing Christ’s Feet c.1720-30

My Granma had a pie-making business.  I believe it started off with just a few pies each day, but at the peak of her pie-making career, she would make up to 40 pies each morning.  She would make the crusts the night before, then get up around 2:00 a.m. to work on the fillings.  When everything was done, she had these pie trays that looked like a stack of coins and she would load them up and carry them out to the car for delivery to the various restaurants.

One morning, when all was loaded and she was driving in for deliveries, she felt something brush up against the back of her leg.  She knew that there were a number of feral cats in the neighborhood and thought it was probably one that had snuck in the car while she was loading the pies, so she just nudged it with her foot and it went under the seat.  When she got to the first restaurant to drop off the pies, she went looking for the freeloading cat.  It wasn’t a cat.  It was a skunk.

We all know that, even on a good day, a skunk smells like a skunk, so the only reason I can figure that she didn’t smell the skunk in the car was that all those pies smelled so much better.  The only reason that skunk didn’t spray my Granma when she pushed him up under the seat was that he knew better than to mess with Nellie Toles when she was delivering her pies.

Some smells are very subtle, like identifying the different fruits and flowers in a glass of wine, but others, like a skunk, are overwhelming.  They hit you like a wall.  We read today in our Gospel, “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”  A more accurate translation identifies the nard as Spikenard.  The perfume comes from boiling the roots of a plant that grows in the Himalayas that has a “woody, spicy, and musty” scent (Source) and a pound of Spikenard perfume would have been enough to fill a coke can.

In order to pour the perfume, either the wax seal keeping it from being spilled or the neck of the bottle, most likely made of alabaster, would have been broken, and when Mary poured out the entire content of the bottle it would have been like hitting that wall, overwhelming.   When it was poured out it is all that you would have been able to smell.  John tells us, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

There are many different messages in this one incident.  We can talk about Judas’ response, we can talk about Mary and the extravagance of what she did (the perfume would have cost a year’s wages), or we could talk about Mary letting her hair down, something a woman during that time would have only done in the bedroom or…etc.  There are many lessons here, but Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa in his book, Come, Creator Spirit, spoke of the significance of the alabaster jar and how it symbolizes Jesus.  He writes: “The alabaster jar needs to be broken! When the woman broke the jar, says St. John, ‘the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ The broken jar was a symbol of Christ’s humanity: pure as he was, he was truly ‘a vessel of alabaster’ to be broken in his death on the cross so that the Holy Spirit within him could be poured out, to fill the whole Church and the whole world with the Spirit’s fragrance.”

In one way or another, the fragile alabaster jar had to be broken in order to release the fragrance, just as Jesus had to be broken on the cross to release the Spirit of God; and just as the fragrance of the Spikenard filled the house, the Spirit of God has filled God’s people and his Church.  

It is St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians who writes: “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?  For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)

You may not notice it so much in the congregation, but on the days we have incense, when you’re in the front and those glorious clouds of smoke are wrapped around you, the scent permeates everything: your clothes, hair, your skin, you breathe it in, and it becomes a part of you.  In the same way, the fragrance of Christ is to become a part of us, permeating our entire being, so that it can radiate from us, but for that to happen, like Jesus, we too must be broken open through the sacrifice of ourselves.  In that breaking, the fragrance of Christ will be revealed and recognizable through our witness to the Gospel, our generosity, kindness, love, compassion, selflessness, and more.

Ask yourself: what is the fragrance of my life?  Is it without scent because you’ve resisted the call of Christ, is it the smell of your own passions and desires and therefore the smell of decay, or is the fragrance of your life the fragrance of Christ as he reveals himself to others through you?  Jesus said, “This is my body, which is broken for you” and in being broken, his life-giving fragrance poured out into the world.  

As his disciples, allow yourselves to be broken, so that this fragrance may continue to fill the house of this world.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, help us to spread Your fragrance everywhere we go. Flood our souls with Your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly that all our lives may only be a radiance of Yours. Shine through us and be so in us that every soul we come in contact with may feel Your presence in our souls. Loving Savior, let them look up and see no longer us but only You!  Amen

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