The Fragrance of Love
Well, some of you know that during my college years, I went to NYU, New York University, right in the heart of Manhattan. And like many of you, I worked during my college years, I had a job off campus. I worked in a big department store in the city. I didn't work in the clothing department or the shoe department or the luggage department. No. I worked behind the men's fragrance counter. Yes, it's true. I was one of those fragrance snipers.
We would annoyingly spray people as they walk past the counter. Believe it or not, I was really good at it. In fact, I was so good that I was one of the top salespeople, and I received a certificate. I still have it. And I tried to find it to bring it in today, but I couldn't. But I have a certificate that was signed by the President of the fragrance company. Someone I'm sure you've heard of. Her name was Estee Lauder.
And Estee Lauder had a quote that she would say all the time, and it was, “Don't save your fragrances for a special day, wear them every day, because every day is special.”
She was a good salesperson. But it's true. Every day is special. Now of course I share this with you today because today's Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday in Lent is all about a very special fragrance, a very extravagant fragrance, a very expensive fragrance.
Jesus is at the home of his friend, Mary of Bethany, and she annoints His feet with a whole bottle of this perfume. This perfume, we're told, costs 300 Denarii, which would be three times the annual wage that most people made back in Jesus's day. So it was very expensive.
Now, some form of this story appears in all four of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but they're all a little bit different. So in Matthew, in Mark's gospel, the woman isn't Mary. The woman is just called an “unnamed woman.” And she doesn't annoint Jesus's feet with perfume, she anointed his head with oil from an alabaster jar. And in Luke's Gospel, the woman is referred to as a “sinful woman.” And she anoints Jesus's feet with her tears, and then some essential oil. And then, of course, we hear today in John's gospel, that the woman is Jesus's friend, Mary.
Now, to complicate matters even more, back in the sixth century, the pope at the time, Pope Gregory, said, all four of these women were actually the same woman, and it was another Mary, Mary Magdalene.
Now, all of these inconsistencies in this story may have you just totally dismiss the story. But remember, I told you before, the gospel writers, they were writing these stories decades after Jesus died, and they weren't really meant to be taken as literal history. They're really meant to be understood more symbolically and spiritually. And so all four of the stories point to the same thing, this extravagant love, that the symbol of this fragrance is this extravagant, wasteful love for God.
Now we, of course, see fragrance used not just in the Judeo Christian tradition, but we see it used in Hinduism and Buddhism and Native American spirituality. You see the lighting of incense during spiritual prayer and meditation and rites, the lighting of candles, the use of essential oils for healing, and the use of burning sage to purify. Fragrance has this ability to open up our senses into the spiritual realm.
Now, God gave us five senses, God gave us five of them because God wants us to use all of them in our worship, in our prayer, in our meditation, in our in our spiritual lives. Oftentimes what we do is we just focus on the things we can see or say, you know, we love to sing and chant in prayer. Maybe even we use touch, we mighttouched a stone or a crystal or mala beads or rosary beads as we pray. But we don't really think of fragrance too much, maybe because it's invisible, we don't really see it. But, think about those times you've walked into a place, and just the smell brought you back to something, the smell of the church you grew up in, or this church. Maybe it's the smell of coffee in the morning, or baking bread, or the smell of a beautiful bouquet of flowers, or the smell of a newborn baby.
When we really focus on the sense of smell, it helps us to become more fully present in the present moment. And that is exactly what Jesus’s friend Mary is doing. She's so present there, at the feet of Jesus, you know, we see her sister, Martha, busily doing things around the house, getting things ready for the dinner. Mary's just sitting there at Jesus's feet. She's totally present in the presence.
So many of us, we are like Martha, and I'm not saying that Martha, being busy was a bad thing. But as I've shared with you before, so many of us believe the spiritual life is about action. It's about doing good works in the world. And that is part of it. But also part of the spiritual life is contemplation, stillness. And that is what Mary is doing there. Many of you know that Martha and Mary were sisters of Lazarus, who the Gospels describe as the disciple whom Jesus loved. If you remember, when Lazarus was dying, they summoned Jesus, and they said, ‘Lord, the one whom you love, is ill.’
Lord, the one whom you love is ill. And Jesus knew immediately who that was, without even giving his name. Now we know in John's gospel, as Jesus is dying on the cross, there were three people there. Well, there are more than three people, but three of those people are Martha and Mary. And then it says, they're there with the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Now, Jesus loves all people. But the Gospels tell us that there was a special connection between Jesus and Lazarus and Martha and Mary. Now, some theologians, some biblical scholars say that Martha and Mary and Lazarus were not a biological family. They were a ‘logical’ family, that Martha and Mary maybe weren't biological sisters, but maybe that they were partners.
Now, all of this, of course, is speculation. And if that's something that interests you, you can read lots of books about it. But the point I want to make is, this family, this unconventional family, was Jesus's family of choice. These were the people Jesus loved the most and felt comfortable with, that he could let his hair down with.
And the reason I say that is because this is the week leading up to Jesus's death. And he is purposely choosing to go to a home, a place, where he knows he is extravagantly loved. Think about it, Jesus knows he is in trouble. He knows that the authorities are looking for him. He knows he is going to be arrested. Think of the fear that would bring up. So he goes to this house with the people who extravagantly love him, and where he can just be.
And then Mary, of course, does that beautiful gesture. She takes this expensive bottle of perfume, and she dumps it all on Jesus's feet. Now, who else was there? It's kind of surprising. But we hear in this Gospel reading that Judas is there – the guy who's going to betray Jesus in just a few days. So in this atmosphere of betrayal, and fear, and violence, Mary does something beautiful. She changes the atmosphere. She fills it with this beautiful, expensive extravagant fragrance. This fragrance of love. My friends, that is what we are called to do. In a world full of fear and war and violence and division, we are to be sending out a fragrance of extravagant love without worrying about the cost. Because extravagant love is never wasteful. That's why we say every Sunday here on the way out, go and love wastefully.
And that is what I would like to invite you to do in this week that's leading up to Holy Week. I want to invite you each and every day this week, to find time to do as Mary did, find time each and every day to just be still and present at the feet of Jesus and shower him with that extravagant, wasteful love. And when you do so, may you be filled with that fragrance of love. And then send it out into the world. For what we send out comes back to us. Let us fill the world with that fragrance of love.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
By Rev. Dawn Hutchings
When I was doing my hospital training, our supervisor told us about a little girl who was in need of a life-saving operation that would also require a blood transfusion. She had a rare blood type and only her brother could give her the blood she so desperately needed. So, the parents and the doctor explained the procedure to the little boy, and - after considering it for a few minutes - he agreed to give his sister his blood. After the blood was taken from him and transported to the operating room, the boy turned to his mother and asked, “So when do I die?” It was only then that they realized that the little boy thought that by giving blood to his sister he would actually be giving up his own life, and he was actually willing to do just that! A little boy was willing to give up his life so that his sister would survive a difficult ordeal. As people of faith, we, too, are called to give as extravagantly and not count the cost. We are called to follow the path to the cross, so that we can be “little christs” to one another, which is what the word “Christian” means. Christ comes to those in need through you and through me. We are called to give and not count the cost. We are called to be extravagant in our loving. So, love wastefully and be as extravagant as you can be!
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