Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
May 22, 2016
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
In 1997, I decided to seek full time ministry for the first time in a couple of years. I had been working as a chaplain at Yale while I was completing my PhD. And I was becoming a father for the first time and I wanted to get a little bit of space so that Claire could take some time off work. And so I thought that the best thing I could do is to find some steady employment as a priest. And so I applied to a few different positions and I found a church in New York City that took me.
And I began that job by commuting from New Haven to New York twice a week and staying for a couple of days. And then going back and forth until it was time and it was safe enough to bring our daughter Phoebe and move in down in New York City. And this gave me an opportunity like no other to see the kind of decisions I had made and to compare different lives that could’ve been led by me if I hadn’t become a priest. Because it was the first time that I took part in that great migration that happens from New Haven all the way down to Greenwich, Connecticut to New York City to work.
And I could see the kind of people and the kind of lifestyles that they lived. And it was rather amazing, it was eye opening, I would see these – it seemed like they were all large men in suits in those days. They moved in almost rhythm into the train at the end of the day, a long day. And they packed themselves into this train and they all took off their jackets revealing these incredibly huge white shirts. And then they’d go to the bar car and they’d load up and they’d have a couple of drinks and then they’d stumble back to their seats and they’d sit down.
And then their large heads would sit back and fall on to the back of the chair on the seat. And then with a gentle rocking of the train many of them would fall asleep. They looked like incredibly large babies. It was amazing to me. I thought for a moment maybe I made the right decision, I will never have an island home. But maybe I made the right decision by choosing the life that I was choosing.
But there were moments of great humanity. I’ll never forget the day when this man got on the train and he had a cardboard box full of his office contents. He had been fired unexpectedly that day. And I remember the tears he shed all the way home. And in those train rides even though I was wearing a collar it was like I was frozen in time, it was a little bit like riding an elevator for a long time. You weren’t to speak to each other. And I wish that I had reached across that aisle and said something like, “I’ll be praying for you.”
And there were other times in which I saw things that I really don’t like to remember that stick inside of me and tear at my heart. One time on one ride back home it was a surprisingly empty train, I got in and no one else got in it seemed for a couple of stops. And then this homeless man came in to the train and sat about midway down and I could tell he was homeless because he was dressed with everything he had. And everything he had was filthy and he was carrying bags and he sat down.
And then at the back of the train a group of people got in, a woman and a few guys got in. And they had spent the day drinking and shopping in Manhattan and they were boisterous and full of life. They got on the train and for reasons that we only know as human beings as part of the brokenness of the human condition they began to mock the homeless man. And began to tell him that he stank, that he smelled.
And at one point the woman in the party had one of those magazines back in the day when you had cologne samples in the magazines and she grabbed it, pulled it out of the magazine and waived it over his head. And I kept on drawing imaginary lines in the sand at what point would I get up? At what point would I intervene? What would I say? What would I do? I was a little bit afraid I’ll be honest with you because there were many of them and they were all drunk and I didn’t think that they would listen to reason.
And the man he just at one point gave out a low bellow that said I’m just trying to get my rest. And then we got to one stop and the party got off and then we got to another and the man got off. And I’ve been thinking about that exchange for years, thinking about my response, thinking about the whole idea of the kind of social differentiation that was made around smell.
In a famous book about working conditions in early 20th century England, George Orwell wrote a famous passage that explicitly links social distance to smell. The real secret of class distinctions in the west, he writes, is summed in four frightful words, the lower classes smell. That is what we are taught. That’s what we were taught. The lower classes smell. Very early in life you acquired the idea that there was something subtly repulsive about a working class body. You would not get nearer to it than you could help.
How we smell for Orwell and perhaps even for us is a sign of status, an indicator of one’s place in society. But I suppose that smells occupy a very complex place in all of our lives a well. Smell is one of those things that sociologists and anthropologists identify as part of the civilizing effect they say in western culture. That the ability to control the smells around you is a way in which people began to develop a different kind of sensibility about how they presented themselves in their person. I’ll never forget when I came of age, when I was 16 years old or so maybe a little bit younger and I was trying to live into the fact that I’d now inhabited a body that was hard to predict as a young adolescent boy. Wasn’t quite sure what would happen at any time.
I would experience this incredible anxiety when I would go into mixed company or when God would bless me with the occasional date. I would stop right before I got up to the front door and I would do a little pit check. Just in case something awful happened from when I left home to arriving at the place of my destination. I was so afraid of smelling bad. But of course smell can also be something that is incredibly powerful and intimate and beautiful.
When I was a little boy one of my earliest memories I had a father who was an airline pilot and would be gone for several days. And one of my earliest memories growing up, I remember being in little footie pajamas and being taken from my crib and being laid on my father’s chest when he returned home from a trip. And I’ll never forget the way he smelled.
There’s a nurse in Minnesota who has developed a product that is a shirt that converts into a blanket. And it’s for mothers to wear before dropping their children or infants off for daycare. And the theory and practice of it that has confirmed it is that when you place the blanket on the infant and she can smell her mother she knows that she is being cared for and that her mother is nearby. She experiences a sense of security and intimacy.
Now I have raised all of this because I want to unpack a simple line in today’s gospel that I think is incredibly important and is the key to understanding what is going on in it. And it’s that line in the middle of today’s gospel where we read that as Mary anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair that the scent of the fragrance of the perfume that she anointed his feet with filled the whole house. To discuss smells even today but no less than was a taboo thing to do. Women did not touch men they weren’t married to or related to by blood. The fact that Mary went and washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and anointed His feet with oil, and the fact that that odor filled the house with it’s fragrance so that everybody could see and smell what was going on, is an indicator of incredible intimacy.
Because at the end of the day our sense of smell is a moment of intimacy. Whether that intimacy is welcome or unwelcome our smell tells us that another body is near. That somebody is near. And so the scent of the nard filled the room. And this has been remembered for centuries afterward because no doubt our sense of smell as many have argued and have shown in studies is the most powerful point of memory that we have. The memories that we have connected to smell are the most vivid. But also because of that deep intimacy that comes with smell.
Jesus in today’s gospel is being anointed for his burial. Jesus is going to his death. Jesus is going away and Mary wants to smell him. Mary wants to be near him, wants to anoint him and the fragrance filled the whole room. It was an undeniable moment of intimacy. And this is why when Judas protested that the money could be spent on the poor, he was articulating a very fine principle but he was offering a rationalization to take him and the disciples out of that moment of intimacy.
And this is why Jesus says at the end that you always have the poor with you but you do not always have me. That’s an indication not that we should ever shirk our duties to the poor but that we should seek the deeper intimacy with Jesus that comes. A kind of intimacy of touch and taste and smell.
I’ve offered you a painting for today by Frank Wesley who was the Indian artist that I’d mentioned to you last week. Wesley is a member of the Bengali Renaissance that petered out in the mid-40s but he kept it going for out his life. This is Wesley’s depiction of Mary washing Jesus’ feet. In other depictions of Mary washing Jesus’ feet in the west, it’s an incredible moment because Mary has portrayed the taboo of touching a man’s feet. The taboo of allowing that kind of deep intimacy of washing a man’s feet with your hair. All of that is often mediated in the west through a kind of medicinal or a kind of marginalized position.
So you have in our bulletin for today an incredible picture of Mary Magdalene about to anoint Jesus, by Andrea Solari, a woman, who is there in the – and who did this sometime in the 15th or 16th century. There you have Mary looking upon Jesus with love in her eyes but she’s holding this little ointment chalice. It’s almost like a medicinal moment. Like, “Come here Jesus this won’t hurt a bit.”
In other depictions of Mary washing Jesus’ feet, her femininity is highlighted, and this is to in some ways place upon women’s bodies the certain taboos of eroticism and unpredictability. Mary is often washing Jesus’ feet in the west and all of these men are around looking somewhat aghast at what is going on.
But here in Wesley’s painting which represents his own travels and training in Japan as well as in India, you have a woman who is approaching Jesus and there is not one shred of shame in the intimacy she seeks with her Lord. She’s there weeping, cherishing his feet holding on to him, venerating him, loving him, in all of his particularity. You can see and sense and perhaps even smell the intimacy of this painting.
You and I next week will begin a long process of walking with Jesus. We will begin with Palm Sunday and we’ll go through a narrative until we reach Easter Day. And we’ll recount all the ways that Jesus’ body is broken and battered and betrayed, until his body gives out and he dies until that body is gloriously risen. And the Christian faith hinges so we believe on the deep intimacy that you and I can have with that body. You and I are called to find Jesus with the intimacy of our senses.
Because Jesus has come to us, seeking us, hoping for a relationship of intimacy with us. Will we welcome that intimacy or will we try to rationalize it? Will we enter into it and live by those stories and hope that they transform us through and through? Or will we go through the paces because it’s the thing to do? These are the questions you and I need to ponder these next couple of weeks. May God bless us and give us courage so that we may reach out for our Lord with all the vulnerability that comes from a person who clings to his feet and loves every bit of him. Amen.