A fragrant scent wafts through the air—rich, overpowering, expensive, all-encompassing. Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, kneels before the Master, takes out a vial containing costly perfume of pure nard, and anoints Jesus’ feet (John 12:3). Exquisite perfume covers the dusty, tired feet of Jesus; feet that are on their way to Calvary. A year’s salary, evaporating into thin air, and a surprised audience where we hear only the accusing voice of Judas—“What a waste!”
At last Jesus speaks: “Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (verse 7).
Smells have a unique way of linking memory and reality. The first time I smelled a durian in Southeast Asia, I thought I smelled death. Many of my friends and colleagues, though, smelled comfort, good food, fellowship, and childhood treats.* The fruits they had grown up with were durian and mango, while I had been raised with apples and pears. For me the whiff of apples baking in the oven would evoke memories of home, fun, and friends.
Smells communicate quickly and effortlessly, “speaking” nonverbally about homecoming, or work, or spring, or—death. Smells build bridges or close doors. Smells make statements—as in the case of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus. Less than a week later Jesus is dead, and the smell of torture, pain, death, and the tomb is in the air. It takes more days and weeks for most of Jesus’ disciples to “get it.” Only Mary’s heart had “seen” it.
This editorial is not about perfume or durians. Instead I wonder what kind of “smell” we give off personally and as a community. Paul raised the same question nearly 2,000 years ago. He juxtaposes the “aroma that brings life” with the “aroma that brings death” (2 Cor. 2:16), driving home a key concept: there is no neutral, fragrance-free existence—we all smell.
The easy route for this piece would be to ask if the communities around our churches know us, recognize us, and see us in action. Granted—Seventh-day Adventists should not be known only for their sound theology but also for their ministries that alleviate suffering, heal the sick, and empower the orphan, widow, and defenseless. However, Paul (and Mary) were not too concerned about a corporate image or ministry emphasis. They realized in their different ways that this was a matter of life and death that required a heart response—up close and personal.
Mary’s heart had understood that Jesus was on the edge of the abyss (while His disciples were still bickering about place and position), and her gratitude knew no boundaries. She gave all, and was willing to be misunderstood. Paul’s use of the smell metaphor was informed by his drive for mission.
Heart conviction and missionary zeal drove the first Adventists to preach, write, sacrifice, and share against all odds. They not only started a “little paper” and proclaimed the “three angels’ messages”—they did it with all brakes off. This was not just another program and initiative—it was their identity, their “aroma.”
What is your heart telling you when you hear “revival and reformation”? What would your non-Adventist (or perhaps even non-Christian) colleague, friend, or neighbor “smell” in your proximity—a fragrance or a stench?
I marvel at Mary’s tenacity and commitment—and wish it more for myself and for my church.
* I will not disclose, in writing, my current position regarding durian—I have too many friends on either side of the divide (or should I write “abyss”?).
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published May 26, 2011.