What Grace Smells Like
April 3, 2022
A few years back, Annie and I were in a grocery store picking up a few things for the week’s meals. But one thing that stopped me short while we were on our way to getting some kind of vegetable or other was a pallet of soft drinks. Well, one particular kind of soft drink. Sun Drop. Now, I don’t know how many of y’all have had Sun Drop, but I was genuinely surprised to find it outside of the South. And this might sound weird to some, but Sun Drop has a special place in my heart.
See, my grandma had this cabinet. It was six foot high cabinet (which is hilarious because she wasn’t even five feet tall with her hair) that was filled, top to bottom, with exactly two varieties of soft drink: Cheerwine (which I’m certain y’all have never heard of) and Sun Drop. And to this day, if I catch a whiff of the sugary lemon-lime carbonation that is Sun Drop’s scent, I am immediately transported back to my grandma’s kitchen. Scent and memory are tied together.
And there’s science that confirms this too. They’ve found that the part of your brain that connects to memories is right next to—and closely integrated with—the part of your brain that processes smells. It’s even proven that if you have a particular smell with you while you’re studying and you copy that smell when you take the exam, you’ll actually do better. But it’s not just the hard facts that come flooding back when you smell a familiar scent. It’s all the feelings too. So I don’t just remember my grandma’s little kitchen with its soft drink cabinet and creaky wooden stools. I remember all the happy feelings associated with being in her home.
John’s gospel works hard to make that kind of deep connection to the story, too. Even more than the other gospels, John is inviting us in to a sensory experience—to hear the din of the wedding at Cana, to taste the loaves as Jesus reveals he is the bread of life, to see the Samaritan crown rushing across the field to see the Messiah, to feel the cool mud before the blind man could see, and to smell the ointment of spikenard that filled the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany.
This incident when Jesus was anointed for his burial before he was even on trial shows up in all four of the gospels—granted, each gospel writer explains it differently, so let’s focus on what John is saying. The perfume that Mary pours on Jesus and wipes with her hair is spikenard, which was an incredibly costly and rare perfume that could only be gotten from the Himalayas. Now, if you’ve ever worn perfume or cologne or any other scent, you know that a little goes a long way. So it’s supposed to be shocking when she breaks open the jar and pours every drop out on Jesus.
But that’s what grace looks like most of the time. Gratuitous. Lavish. Maybe even wasteful?
Judas seemed to think wasteful. Regardless of his motives, we could all understand his argument. A perfume that expensive could have been—really, should have been—sold and the money given to the poor. Pouring it out like this, it was just wasteful. But Jesus reminded Judas (and us) that he won’t be physically present forever, but the poor will. So Judas, he chides, you will always have the occasion and the duty to be generous to the poor. But this anointing is about giving a sign of grace. Lavish, unexpected, apparently wasteful grace.
The kind of grace that you never forget. The kind that gets up into your nostrils and lodged in your brain. The kind of grace that you can recognize with all of your senses. The smell of that spikenard would be with the disciples forever, so that when they were walking through the streets of some town sharing the good news, and a faint whiff of this perfume could be smelled, they would immediately be transported to the preposterous, outrageous, wasteful generosity of God’s grace.
And God wants us to experience that. God wants us to associate grace with all of our senses, but especially smell. Because if you can smell grace, then you can be reminded of it without ever having to say a word. If the lavish and unbound love of God can be packaged in a smell, then that’s something God wants us to be able to identify. What smell memories do we have that take us straight to the goodness of God’s grace?
Could it be the scent of cinnamon rolls, wafting up into the sanctuary and permeating the church every first Sunday of the month to remind us that God calls us together and empowers us to empower our youth?
Could it be the arresting scent of lutefisk, seeping into clothes and cabinets, immediately recalling the sounds of old friends and conversations, the generosity of heaping portions, and the way that God brings us to a table filled with food?
Or could it be the overwhelming scent of Easter lilies, immediately connecting to soaring organ music and the message of resurrection that reminds us he is not in the tomb, he is risen?
God’s grace smells. And it smells because God wants us to walk through life and be suddenly, unexpectedly, and delightfully reminded of that wondrous grace when we’re doing something as simple as pulling bread out of the oven or putting on a perfume. God wants to give us surprise reminders like little notes wrapped up in scent memories that remind us that we are deeply, wholly, and truly loved; and that we have nothing in the world to fear because God is for us.
So what does God’s grace smell like to you? What scent memory takes you straight to the place of remembering the God who loves you more than anything in the world? And how does that scent memory help you share that grace with others, and become the person that God has called you to be?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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