There once was a priest, a very pious and devout man, who regularly asked God in prayer to be shown what heaven and hell were like. God eventually granted his request and he was in a dream led to an unmarked door which bore no name. As he stood there trembling, the door swung open and he could see a large room with a table set for a great feast. The aromas and smells of the food filled the room and made the mouth water. Diners sat around the table with spoons in their hands and yet they were unable to eat. These people were miserable, gaunt with hunger and worked very hard at feeding themselves but were unable to. They despaired and cursed God for the spoons were too long for the self feeders to be allowed to eat. They could not reach their own mouths. So these self feeders starve while the great feast lay in front of them on the table. Then the door closed before the priest eyes.
Next, the devout prelate found himself in front of another nameless door. He began to be in pain and despair as the memory of the first room lingered with him – he did not think he could endure another such experience. As the door to the second room open he saw the same room with the same table and the same great feast with the tantalizing aromas wafted around the room. The people gathered had the same dreadfully long spoons and yet there was great joy and laughter that filled the air. There were no cries of anguish, no curses uttered in despair. These people were feed each other, reaching each other’s mouths with the food on the table. And their joy was overflowing.
The anointing of Jesus at the table with his friends is an important moment in the telling of the story of Jesus. Mary has been at the feet of Jesus before, when he was in the house and was telling those closest to him. It is a profound moment for both he who is being anointed and she who is doing the anointing. Mary’s gentle act of devotion fills the whole house with the fragrance of what she is doing. Perhaps, even if it is only for a moment, she gives without hesitation or reservation to do what a practical person would call foolish or wasteful. Mary does what we are supposed to do as individuals and as Christian community, be not only devoted but give love and help when it is needed. Was Mary aware of what was just ahead now, the cross and the grave? No one knows or can tell. All she knows for certain is that this is a moment that she has been waiting some time for.
It hasn’t been all that long since the where worry when Jesus gave the order to remove the stone from her brother’s tomb. They did not want to deal with the stench of death. And yet here sits her brother Lazarus, laughing joking and eating. Mary needed a way to say thank you. Mary needed away to express her gratitude and show her devotion to the Master. She went and found a very expensive jar or spikenard oil and used it. Something that must have been very important to her, maybe to have been used to bath in prior to her wedding day or maybe it was purchased to embalm her brother with when he died. Whatever the case it was something that had cost her a great deal and now she lavishly shares it with Jesus. She devotes herself right down to the last lock of hair on her head.
How does it feel to watch someone perform an act of devotion? Embarrassed? Restless? Listless? Awkward? Into this act of love and devotion comes Judas, someone who seemingly only cares for himself and will look out for only number one. Was it that he was really after a portion of the money that could have been wrought from the sale of this precious item or was it that he saw something in Mary that he lacked in his own life and walk with Christ? He wanted position and power and all that comes with it. And that might have made him a good contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice” but it could suspected that he is still going to get fired because he can only think of himself.
Mary helps Jesus to bring about the sweet smell of sacrifice. She is not anointing to be a king or a prophet. She was helping help to be ready for the grave: for the moment when he would surrender his life to the Father as a “full oblation of himself once offered, a full perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”
Where do we fit into this? We have to choose: which smell we do we what to be attached to us. Do we want the fragrance of devotion or the smell of death? The Church needs to recognize that even if we choose life and it is a great fragrance to God and to those who are living a life towards God, it will not be so for those around us who who do not know Christ. They still smell the wafts of the grave. To them, the Church, as it lives out its mission will smell like death. It is why we can proclaim, "If we have died with him we shall live with him, if we hold firm we shall reign with him". We are called to serve that others might come to know the fragrances of Christ sacrifice for them, to help them breathe in depth and truly begin to live. So the next time you smell something good, ask yourself, "Are you ready to serve?"