Go Smell It

Homily for Sunday, April 7, 2019
Lent 5C
John 12:1–8

perfume bottlesIn their classic of the family therapy repertoire, The Family Crucible, co-therapists and co-authors Gus Napier and Carl Whitaker tell of how Carolyn, the wife in a couple with whom they’ve been meeting, has been making substantial progress—she’s more her own person, she’s more emotionally expressive, she’s more… alive!  But David, the husband, in a dynamic that is not unusual when one of a couple experiences growth, is resistant and—perhaps subconsciously, as part of his resistance to this new person and this new dynamic in the marriage—found a job offer in another city.  Napier writes:

The sudden offer of a job in a distant city had fallen on the Brice’s marriage like the blow of a stonecutter, threatening to split their relationship.  The structural flaw in the relationship had been there from the beginning: a set of “rules for living” that were rigid, repressive, and emotionally “safe.”  These rules—their inheritance from their respective families of origin—were dictated by anxiety, dependency, a commitment to selflessness, a need to keep life muted and restrained.  The price they paid for emotional security was a kind of emotional death.

Carl and I had repeatedly urged David and Carolyn to take more risks with their relationship: to be more separate, to share difficult feelings, to be crazier, to allow more spontaneity.  We invited them to live life as it is, not as they thought it should be, and to risk the confusion, the terror, the passion, the fury that exist under the surface of all our tame, planned existences.

We realized that “opening up” might mean disaster for the couple.  So much bitterness had been accumulated and carefully stored, so many desires postponed.  To break the brittle surface of their conforming lives was to risk unleashing forces no one might be able to control.  Small wonder that they had procrastinated for so long.  Now, though, one could fairly hear the whistle of the hammer as it fell through the air.

To those of us who are married and for some time, I suspect we recognize this dynamic.

I want to return to the Brices and their dynamic momentarily, but first I want to share with you a review by Luca Turin, author of Perfumes: The Guide, of the perfume Paradox, a women’s fragrance released by Jacomo in 1998.

Beauty itself, as with faces, is not simple: perfumes can be handsome (Mitsouko), graceful (Calandre), gorgeous (Joy), comely (Shalimar), radiant (Tommy Girl), exquisite (Après l’Ondée), stunning (Angel).  Reader beware: Paradox is, to paraphrase something once said about Scriabin’s music, a perfume of “almost unbearable loveliness.”  One of the properties of loveliness is that it disarms all attempts to be serious, and turns all critical machinery into a pile of whirring junk.  What I find all the more irritating is that Paradox isn’t even “my type.”  It is, after all, yet another fruit salad of the type that has kept perfumers gainfully employed since Deci-Delá.  But this fruit salad does something that it has no right to do: break hearts.  If this were music, it would be Bizet’s Symphony in C.  If it were a car, it would be a Facel-Vega Facellia.  If it were an aircraft it would be a 1959 Caravelle in Air France livery.  Anyway, go smell it.


It may seem a little “off” to place the story of the Brices, with their “accumulation of bitterness” and their “emotionally ‘safe’” “rules for living” alongside the review of a perfume of “almost unbearable loveliness,” but the juxtaposition of family feud and perfume is exactly the context of today’s Gospel lesson.

A bit of background, first about John, then about perfume…  John’s Gospel is in part the record of a family feud.  Perhaps more clearly than in any other Gospel, in John we see an intense, bitter feud and eventual “divorce” between the nascent Christian community and the local synagogue.  Though in John this feud is always simmering, sometimes it boils over.  In chapter 8, for example, Jesus calls some from the synagogue liars (8:55) and sons of the devil (8:44), and they in turn accuse him of having a demon (8:48) and pick up stones to throw at him (8:59).  Or in chapter 9 the Pharisees “drove… out” of the synagogue the man born blind whose sight Jesus had restored (9:34)…  as many early Christians had probably been “driven out” of the synagogue.  Or at Jesus’ crucifixion in John the religious authorities tell Pilate: “Do not write, ‘The king of the Jews,’” but “This man said, I am king of the Jews.”  (“He’s not; he only said that he was”—the crux of their feud.)

americanbadgerAbout perfume…  I was surprised to learn some of the ingredients often used in perfume.

  • Castoreum: how beavers mark their territory
  • Hyraceum: the petrified excrement of a particular South African badger
  • Civet: scraped off the rear end of a member of the weasel family
  • Ambergris: sperm-whale feces, marinated in the sea
  • Musk: those poor deer…

To say the least, it is an art to combine such ingredients into something we actually want to smell.  It is an art and, while there might be a few rules, it takes an artist and his allowing himself to be crazier and more spontaneous, of her risking “confusion” and “passion,” to make perfume from such ingredients.


Which is what happens in today’s gospel lesson.  From the midst of John’s family feud, in which “much bitterness had been accumulated and carefully stored” but before “the blow of [the] stonecutter” irrevocably divides, Mary creates a moment of “almost unbearable loveliness.”

Mary took a pound of costly perfume… anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.

Mary is an artist, passionate and not at all tame, and what she creates is beautiful.  “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” John says.

It would not be inappropriate were Mary’s perfume to be called “Paradox,” for in the very next verse we hear:

But Judas Iscariot… (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

An act of passion and exquisite beauty, juxtaposed with greed and a foreshadowing of betrayal.  Isn’t this how families so often are?  Don’t we in families regularly juxtapose things like “anxiety, dependency… and a need to keep life muted and restrained” with a “loveliness.. that disarms.. and turns all critical machinery into a pile of whirring junk?”

“Loveliness… that disarms”:

  • Think of the sacrifices parents will make for their children,
  • or how one spouse will care for the other in infirmity,
  • or a son or daughter care for an elderly parent,
  • or how an older sibling might postpone college to care for a younger sibling with autism,
  • or how one sibling may donate a kidney to the other.

“Anxiety, dependency… and a need to keep life muted and restrained”:

  • We’ve probably all seen couples whom it hurts just to see; we can almost feel the bitterness and resentment between them.
  • We probably all know families in which there is estrangement, in which parents and children no longer speak, or siblings haven’t spoken for years.
  • And I suspect we’ve all seen how death can affect families, when the absence of a “key player” in a family dynamic, or matters of inheritance, will reveal old “structural flaws,” and the family splits.


In his encyclical Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis writes this about families:

The life of every family is marked by all kinds of crises, yet these are also part of its dramatic beauty. [232]

Just as families are “marked by all kinds of crises,” so is John marked by all kinds of crises, between the early Christians and the local synagogue.  But out of those crises emerges an act of “dramatic beauty,” Jesus’ Passion and death, which Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet foreshadows.  Here in John, even in just today’s passage from chapter 12:

  • beauty is juxtaposed with betrayal
  • loveliness is there with greed
  • generosity dwells with fear
  • tenderness is alongside bitterness
  • joy mingles with resentment
  • there is heroic sacrifice and also craven selfishness.

… probably just like in many families.  Yet…as perfume is made with castoreum (what beavers mark their territory with); yet, as perfume is made with hyraceum (the petrified excrement of a South African badger); yet, as perfume can be made with sperm whale feces marinated in the sea, and with any number of other unlikely ingredients, so is the “crap” of families never beyond redemption.  Indeed, if what the Pope says is true, our families’ “crap” can be part of their dramatic beauty.  There may be a few rules, but ultimately it is an art to create beauty in families.  Too much emotional security, for example, and what beavers mark their territory with is just what beavers mark their territory with; too much selflessness, and ambergris is just ambergris.  But used rightly in the hands of an artist…


Mary anoints Jesus' feet-Bath AbbeyToday on the fifth Sunday of Lent, we can “fairly hear the whistle of the hammer as it [falls] through the air.”  Yes, the hammer used to drive in the nails through Jesus’ hands and feet on Good Friday.  But also the hammer that is Jesus, who, as an agent of “almost unbearable loveliness,” entered our world’s “rigid, repressive” family system and by his death and resurrection set us free.  Free from the powers that would keep our lives “muted and restrained,” free from bitterness and resentment, free from living life as we think it should be rather than as it is.  By the cross Jesus “breaks the brittle surface of our conforming lives”; by the cross he “disarms [our] attempts to be [too] serious”; by the cross he “turns all [our] critical machinery into a pile of whirring junk.”  By the cross Jesus enabled us to risk confusion and to turn up the passion that is “under the surface of all our tame, planned existences.”  For Jesus wants—like Luca Turin wrote of Paradox—to “break hearts,” to break our hearts open—like a jar of perfume, like the grave on Easter morning—so that the crap in our lives, including the crap that so often goes with families, might be redeemed and become part of our lives’ “dramatic beauty.”

There are not many rules for this art.  But maybe, just maybe, if we like Mary take our “perfume”—with our “ingredients,” all the stuff of our lives, both beautiful and crappy—[if we take our “perfume”] and break it open on Jesus’ feet, if we then wipe his feet with our hair, if we let the smell of this perfume fill the room, if we then follow him to the cross and abide with him there, if we allow ourselves to go with Mary to the tomb on Easter morning, then maybe we will discover a “dramatic beauty,” an “unbearable loveliness,” that only the crucified and risen Jesus can work in our lives.  Jesus is the master perfumer, after all, and we are his work: as Paul writes (in 2 Corinthians), “We are the aroma of Christ to God.”  In his death and resurrection Jesus takes up all the stuff of our lives and makes perfume of almost unbearable loveliness.  Because, again to quote Paul, Jesus wants to “spread.. through us… in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him…  a fragrance from life to life.”  It’s an amazing fragrance, this perfume, surprising and astonishing.  Anyway—where it appears in our lives, when we see it in Scripture, where it appears in our families, where we see it in this sacrament, when we encounter it in the liturgies of Holy Week—anyway, this “fragrance”—what Jesus, by his death and resurrection, is doing with our lives…  Anyway, were it music, I don’t know what piece it might be; were it a car, I’m not sure; or an airplane…  Anyway, go smell it.


1 thought on “Go Smell It

  1. Pingback: Go Smell It (April 7 homily) – Grace in Midlife

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