What Fragrance Will I Bring?

The apostle John tells us (in John 12:1-2), “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  There they gave a dinner for him.” 

Take a deep breath and imagine the aromas that would have filled the house that day.  There would have been the smell of freshly baked unleavened bread for this was within seven days of the Passover.  There would have been the aroma of wine, and the smells of dates and figs and fresh grapes and cooked onions and Jerusalem cheese and pickled herrings and honey pie.  For a dinner like this, there may have been the smell of barbecued goat or lamb.

How did these wonderful aromas get into the home?  John tells us concisely, “Martha served.”  

Martha, honored by Catholics as a patron saint of cooking and of serving, had the magnificent gift of hospitality.  She brought love and joy into a home and into the lives of others in the way in which she fed and cared for people. 

Max Lucado shares his own experience with someone like Martha: “The best example of love that I can think of occurred at the death of my own father.  I remember a lady who was a distant relative of our family.  She drove six hours to get to the funeral.  She walked in the house and went immediately into the kitchen and began washing dishes.  I didn’t even know she was there.  She straightened up everything and helped prepare for the meal.  She came to the funeral.  After the funeral, she came back and did the dishes again, got in her car and went home.  As far as I know, she never said a word.  She never introduced herself. But when I looked around, I realized that love had been in our house.” (quoted by Gene Getz in The Walk, p. 74)

In John 12, we find out that Martha’s house became filled with another aroma, the fragrance of perfume.  Martha’s sister Mary “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”

This, too, was a marvelous aroma.  It was the aroma of personal devotion and generosity.  Ann Kiemel writes, “Grandfather was in the backyard, and it was midmorning.  His small grandson kept begging him, ‘Gramps, can I fix you a hamburger?’

            “‘No, honey, gramps is full.  He just had breakfast.’

            “‘Hmmm.  Can I fix you a hot dog?’

            “‘I don’t think a hot dog would mix well with the eggs inside.’

            “The child tugged on his grandfather’s arms, and burst into an enormous smile.  ‘I know, Gramps . . . a glass of water?’

            “Grandfather looked into the dirt-smeared face.  He wasn’t thirsty, but he could see the boy’s desire to do something special for the man he most admired.  ‘Yep, I think Gramps could use a drink.’

            “The child ran into the kitchen.  He happened to pick up a dirty glass from the sink instead of a clean one.  He turned on the hot water tap, instead of the cold.  As he ran out the door with the water, the mud from his hands smeared over the outside of the glass, dribbled inside, and clouded the hot water.  ‘Here you are, Gramps.’  (Oh, his enthusiasm.)

            “Gramps looked at the awful glass of water, and caught the sparkle in the small face.  He drank it all, and wrapped his arms around the lad.  ‘You know, that was the best glass of water Gramps ever had.’” (I Love the Word ‘Impossible,’ pp. 92-93)

There is no greater taste and no greater fragrance than that of genuine love for another.

But another smell filled Martha’s and Mary’s home that day as well—not the delicious smell of Martha’s cooking or the delightful fragrance of Mary’s devotion, but the stench of Judas’ hypocrisy, greed, and condescending judgment. 

In her book The Sense of Smell in the Middle Ages, Katelynn Robinson comments, “Just as the odor of good fame reflects good actions and is healing to others through its good example, the stench of infamy reflects bad actions that have putrefied the soul, and infects others.  Sometimes wicked people can hide their bad deeds with ‘insincere good words and virtues’ and pious actions such as penance in the same way that stenches can be hidden under good odors…. The wicked person might even seem to have the odor of good fame.  However, the ability of a bad person to hide the stench of his true nature is only temporary…. The stench of spiritual corruption thus cannot be long disguised with pious actions.”

It strikes me that in my dealings with others, I have the opportunity to bring the beautiful aroma of service and hospitality, or the delightful fragrance of devotion and generosity, or the stench of insincerity and condescension.  Many years ago, Henry David Thoreau advised, “Behave so the aroma of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere.”

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