Aromatizing our Prayers

This Lent, I have been trying to experience the Fourth Gospel through the five senses and experience God through the five senses. I have been trying to listen to the Spirit of God in my breath and in the wind. I have been trying to appreciate tasting, drinking and eating particularly the consecrated bread and wine through which the Spirit of Christ enters me and makes my body into a temple of the Holy Spirit. I have been trying to open my eyes to see opportunities for creativity and healing where once I saw opportunities to blame; and to see God’s creativity and healing power at work even when things appear to be very, very messy.

I have been trying to do this. In some ways, it has been really encouraging and has helped me be present and in other ways it has been disappointing and discouraging. I have often found that my reflections on the bodily senses tend to become too abstract and spiritualized way too quickly while the intent was to engage the senses in a down-to-earth and practical way. However, the Fourth Gospel keeps pushing me to go deeper in my engagement with the senses and to understand the senses as symbols of deeper spiritual realities. In a way, this makes a lot of sense. Most of us don’t come to church to focus on our flesh but rather to focus on our spirit, or more specifically, on the Holy Spirit that gives life to our flesh. As Paul says, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). But then he goes on to remind us that our fleshly bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, “The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). The Fourth Gospel similarly invites us to understand our bodies as temples of the same Spirit who raised both Jesus and Lazarus from the dead. I have been trying to find this balance between appreciating the spirit that gives life to the body and appreciating the body that houses the spirit. It has been hard and frustrating and sometimes disappointing.

So I brought this disappointment with me to our gathering here last Saturday along with other frustrations around sickness in my family. I had been struggling to find the right words to pray so it was helpful for me to ease into the ancient words of the Psalms, which express a kaleidoscopic range of emotions. We lit some frankincense and prayed psalms of joy, anger, confusion and sadness. We chanted the Psalms; we read responsively, antiphonally, softly, joyfully, loudly (especially when we competed with the lawnmowers outside). And all the while, the frankincense kept burning, releasing its holy fragrance and reminding us of how all our prayers were, in the words of Psalm 141, “set before God like incense.”

Initially, the aroma of the frankincense reminded me of the stunning Anglo-Catholic parish at Time’s Square: St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, known for its frequent use of frankincense and fondly referred to as “Smoky Mary’s.” Now that holy scent has taken on new meaning for me as it will remind me of this church and this sacred space and time when we gathered to prayerfully read all 150 Psalms. The aroma will remind me of how all our prayers —both joyful and sorrowful—were received by God as sweet-smelling incense.

Our sense of smell, as we all know, has a unique way of triggering memories and deep emotions; and our Gospel this morning is suffused with references to smell, memory and deep emotions. When we are introduced to Mary, we are reminded that she is the one who poured (or will pour) expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet and filled the entire house with its potent fragrance. Martha tries to remind Jesus that there is already a stench of death and decay emanating from Lazarus’s tomb. And the onlookers remind themselves of Jesus’s love for Lazarus and his previous healings as they observe Mary, Martha and Jesus each express their own intense emotions.

Just as the Psalmists and those who pray the Psalms express their intense emotions to God so too do Martha and Mary express their emotions to Christ in this morning’s Gospel. Mary and Martha show us that no matter how despairing and even hopeless our prayers might be they are still received lovingly by God as sweet-smelling incense.

Both Mary and Martha embody the many psalms that cry out to God for help when they say together, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Also like the Psalmists, Mary and Martha must struggle with the inexplicable delay of their Lord. As readers, we too are baffled by Christ’s delay when we read the puzzling words: “Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Why would Jesus stay after having heard this news? As readers, we are compelled to ask this question and to also imagine the confusion of Martha and Mary, who must have been praying something akin to the potent words of Psalm 44, which cries out: “Wake up, O Lord! What are you waiting for? Rise up, come to our help.”

When Jesus does finally arrive, he appears to be too late; and Mary and Martha each respond to Jesus’s significant tardiness in their own way. Martha’s response embodies the psalms that express anger and confusion but then reaffirm their trust in God’s saving power when she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” What I love so much about the Gospels in general and this morning’s passage in particular is how we get to see how God in Christ responds specifically to emotion-filled prayers and complaints, like those in the Psalms. Jesus receives Martha’s complaint and subsequent affirmation of faith by inviting her to broaden and deepen her understanding of the resurrection and of himself, proclaiming, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Mary’s response to Jesus’s delay embodies the darker psalms that both begin and end in anger and confusion when she falls at Jesus’s feet, weeping and says simply, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, “Why weren’t you here earlier? You could have saved him. He is dead now because of you.” Commentators often point out that, with these words, Mary is rebuking Jesus.

And how does Jesus respond to Mary’s raw emotions? He seems to accept her complaint as a genuine act of faith and responds with one of the most profound, humble and human acts of love and pastoral care within all the Gospels. He weeps with her. He responds to her tear-stained prayer by crying with her. One of the Psalms (Psalm 56) says to God, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Our tears are precious to God, so precious that they move him to tears as well. Throughout John’s Gospel and especially throughout this passage, Jesus is no stoic. He is bursting and overflowing with intense emotions. The fully human Jesus of John empathizes fully with all of our sorrows. He not only receives our prayers as incense; he also enters into our deepest emotions with us.

The fully human Jesus of John is also fully divine; therefore, he can also hear the prayers of one who is dead and buried; of Lazarus who embodies perhaps the darkest Psalm of all: Psalm 88, which concludes with these haunting words: “Your terrors have swept over me; they have engulfed me completely. You have taken away my loved ones. My only friend is darkness.” In the stinking darkness of death and decay, Jesus smells hints of new life and calls them forth when he cries, “Lazarus, come out!” We learn that even the most dark and disturbing secrets and feelings which we are sure must smell like death to God are received by Christ who will transform them into new life.

Episcopal priest and author Martin L. Smith writes, “In Lent…we often try to palm off on God the renunciation of desserts and treats, when Christ is [really] summoning us to hand over our burdens” (127-128). So what burdens is Christ summoning you to hand over to him this Lent? What emotions or complaints or frustrations are you being invited to bring to God in prayer? I invite us to trust that whatever we bring to God in prayer will be received by him as sweet-smelling incense. I also invite us to aromatize our prayers. What do I mean by that?  I mean that I invite us to not only practice being present to the moment and to our bodies by appreciating our sense of smell but I also invite us to let God speak to us through our sense of smell. Perhaps there is an emotion or wound or longing hidden deep within us that can only be triggered and unleashed through the smell of some aroma. Let us invite God to tap into those deep parts of us this week through our sense of smell so that we can bring those emotions or wounds or longings to God in prayer, like Mary and Martha and the Psalmists; so that we can hand over our burdens to Christ; so that we can we allow God to breathe his refreshing life into those dark parts of our soul that might feel dead. And by doing so, we can experience resurrection and new life in our own tombs and valleys of dry bones through the One who is the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.

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