THE SENSE OF SMELL is intimately enmeshed with memory centers in our brains. Humanity’s experience of the evocative power of scent is not fanciful. The bereaved hang on to their loved one’s clothes, to inhale their unique scent, to flood themselves with recollection.
As we celebrate Holy Week, we can evoke the memories created by Mary of Bethany when she anointed Jesus with luxurious nard, six days before his final Passover. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” we will read in John 12. Her lavish gesture, wasting this fabulously expensive Indian cosmetic, was to be ever linked with the excessiveness, the far-too-muchness, of Jesus’ own willingness to throw his life away on the cross. The theme of excess is taken up in John’s pointed note about the vast quantity of spices—a hundred pounds!—lavished on Jesus’ corpse before burial. When the disciples entered the empty tomb at dawn, the gorgeous aroma must have been overpowering. Perhaps the reluctance of so many to accept the empty tomb and the implications of the apostles’ testimony is related to a reductionist instinct, a recoil from divine excess. Judas was disgusted by Mary’s excess—and there are those who think that the bodily resurrection is incredible because it is over the top. Surely, they say, the idea of the exaltation of Jesus’ spirit, the resurrection as strictly metaphorical, seems more than satisfactory without anything actually happening to his corpse! But God exceeds through excess.