Have you ever had a moment when a smell elicits a really strong memory for you? I had that happen a few years ago, when I walked into that Hungry Hollow store out on Route 26. I stepped in and a wave of nostalgia washed over me. It took me a minute to figure it out, and then suddenly I thought, “Oh! It smells like Aunt Marion’s house!” The smell of Aunt Marion’s house was a mixture of chocolate chip cookies, freshly baked bread, wet wool yarn and old wooden floors.
Aunt Marion was my mother’s favorite aunt. She lived down the hill from my father’s mother, in West Baldwin. I will tell you now that trips to my Grandmother Moore’s house were not much fun for a little kid. It wasn’t just that there was not a lot for me to do. I didn’t understand it at the time but there was always a high-pitched hum of tension when we were there—Grammie’s general attitude toward my mom was one of disapproval. Stopping at Aunt Marion’s house on the way home was not just my reward for good behavior. It was Mom’s reward, too. The smell of Aunt Marion’s house was also a mixture of relief, sadness, ratcheting down the tension and allowing one’s emotions to dissipate in a safe place. The smell of Aunt Marion’s house was the smell of unconditional love.
People who study the brain will tell you that the most direct route to one’s memories is the sense of smell. It bypasses all rational thought. If you close your eyes as you breathe it in, you might feel like you are physically present to that memory. It’s more than recalling information, like “Montpelier is the capital of Vermont.” It’s experiencing again what it felt like take a walk on a sunny afternoon and smell the newly manure-fertilized fields on a backroad in Vermont. You can almost feel the heat of the sun and the slight breeze and remember the way a long-forgotten friend’s laugh sounded.
At the last supper, when Jesus told his disciples “Do this in remembrance of me,” he means this kind of remembering. “Eat this bread and drink this wine and feel my presence with you.”
So I imagine that anyone who was in the house the night Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet would have similar strong flash of memory whenever they smelled nard. Nard, or spikenard, is a perfumed ointment made from the root of a tree found in the Himalayas. It was very expensive—a pound of it was worth a laborer’s yearly income—not something you’d have just lying around the house. It is not necessarily one of the ‘burial spices’ women used, but it’s possible. Remember, Mary only recently buried her brother Lazarus—the same brother who now sat at the table with them, very much alive. And as Jesus defends her actions in the face of Judas’ criticism, he ties this action to his own impending death.
In this story, Mary is following in the footsteps of prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who would act out whatever message they had been given, conveying through gesture and action what is too hard to communicate through words. It’s possible she doesn’t even know the full meaning of what she’s doing. She is not the one who connects it with his burial. He does that. She may have been just as stunned as the rest of them. They may all have been stunned when years later they caught a whiff of spikenard and were transported back to that moment, and felt again the mix of emotions: sorrow, anger, awe…maybe even frustration or shame.
There is a fancy theological word for this kind of remembering. Anamnesis. I first heard it applied specifically to the celebration of the Eucharist. Those words I mentioned earlier, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
But this kind of remembering has been part of our faith heritage for longer than that. Every time God told the people of Israel to remember all the things God had done for them in the past, all those acts of liberation, all those times God provided for them when they thought they would die of starvation or dehydration. God tells them to remember.
Except in today’s first reading. Quite out of character, God says, “do not remember the former things…”
I don’t think the point is to forget all the ways in which God helped them in the past. After all, the passage begins with those iconic images of God making a way in the sea, bringing down chariot and horse, army and warrior. Those are direct references to the parting of the Red Sea and defeating the Egyptian army that chased after them.
I think the point is to let go of expectations about how God will act now. The imagery offered, creating a river in the desert, is the exact opposite of the parting of the Red Sea. God will provide what’s needed. In the past, it was dry ground in the middle of a whole lot of water; now what is needed is some water in the middle of a whole lot of dry ground. Don’t cling so tightly to how God has done things in the past that you fail to see the new thing God is doing.
This is the point Paul is trying to make in this reading from Philippians, too. We enter the passage mid-sentence. He has just been railing against people who insist that the people who want to enter into the new covenant with God through Jesus must first enter into the old covenant with God through Abraham, and be circumcised. Paul is frustrated that despite all his preaching and teaching, they still aren’t getting that God is doing a new thing. A new way of reaching out to people and drawing them close. Or as C.S. Lewis would say, “Things never happen the same way twice, dear one.”
It’s good to remember. But even in the remembering, we need to stay open to the God’s ongoing activity, ongoing creativity, in this world. God doesn’t do things the same way twice. Don’t spend so much time watching and waiting for the seas to part that you don’t even notice when God is creating a highway through the desert. When the fragrance of the past tickle your nostrils, embrace the things that bring joy and give life, but let the love of God open new meaning to them, as well. Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead…press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.