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"The Scent of Prayer”

​Sometimes it can be hard to discern why certain texts are thrust together by the lectionary, like strangers on a subway car – some headed to work in gleaming high-rises, others to labor for minimum wage in the shadows.

The disciples examine the fresh wounds on Jesus's body after the resurrection

Psalm 126 and John 12:1-8

April 3, 2022

Dr. Todd R. Wright Sometimes it can be hard to discern why certain texts are thrust together by the lectionary, like strangers on a subway car – some headed to work in gleaming high-rises, others to labor for minimum wage in the shadows. That’s the way it seems with a psalm of “joy remembered and joy anticipated”[1] forced to share space with the tale of a woman on her knees, grasping at the feet of a man on his way to death. But there is a link. And poet Andrea Skevington helps us see it: “And so you come once more to Bethany, and share a meal with Lazarus, a resurrection feast, foreshadowing all those kingdom feasts you told of: wedding banquets with long tables set wide with good things, with room enough for all … Now, in Bethany, the house is ablaze with light, shutters and doors thrown open, all wide open with joy unspeakable, music, laughter, dancing, wild thanksgiving for one who was dead is alive again …”[2] Skevington helps us recognize the echoes of the celebration evident in the first few verses of Psalm 126, that joy drunk song of wonder at all God has done: mouths so full of laughter that shouts of joy spill out and dribble down their chins! All because God has brought them home from exile in Babylon, freeing them from the mightiest military in the world. It is enough to make the neighbors talk! She is saying that Mary is also remembering God’s mighty deeds! That her brother’s return from the dead is no less wonderous! No less a prompt for giggling and dancing! No less a reason for the neighbors to shake their heads in awe! Skevington is saying that this scene in Bethany might as well be a song of ascents for those marching to Jerusalem for Passover!


Of course, the psalm does not stop with remembering what God has done. It goes on to ask God to do it again … to meet current need with historic grace. It asks God to restore their drought-dry lives with spring rains like the wadis in the Negeb. It asks God to wipe away their tears and give them reason to shout praises. It asks God to reward the trust with which they have planted hope with a harvest of joy. And so, Skevington imagines Mary, emboldened by what God has done, seeking God’s intervention once again: “And all night, while crowds pour in from Jerusalem, the feast goes on, and on, as Mary enters now, cheeks glistening with joy, past her brother, back from the grave. She kneels at your feet again, [and] pours out extravagant nard, [a] scandalous anointing of your warm, living feet. [She] unbinds her hair and lets it flow like water over them, wiping them in such reckless and tender thanksgiving. Fragrance fills the room, the house, the night, as more people pour from Jerusalem to you, to you, who comes to us in our weeping, who shares our bread with us, and brings us to such joy as this.”[3]


Scholars have debated why Mary anointed Jesus with expensive oil. Was it to mark him as a heavenly king, the Son of God? A truth only she was seeing with any clarity. Or was it to prepare his body for death? A truth that everyone could see was likely, but only she was willing to admit. But what if there is a third option? What if she is placing an offering at God’s feet … just like the pilgrims at the Temple? What if she is humming, “Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom!” Remember us. Remember your people, Israel, who you have saved in the past! What if she is counting on God to work mighty deeds again and impress the nations? What if the scent that fills the house wafts upward like the psalmist’s prayers?


Like Mary, and the psalmist before her, we have reason to celebrate God’s past faithfulness: God has brought us home to a land of safety and love when we were stuck in the far country. And God has restored life and hope when we were spiritually dead. And like the psalmist and Mary, we have been bold to pray for God to do it again: To join us in our tears, but also to give us reason to dance! To make the seasonal waters flow like irrigation ditches for crops and justice! To receive our desperate offerings for what they are: acts of faith and praise and trust. And to fill the room, the house, the neighborhood with the scent of our joy!


Lent is a season that begins with ashes. We are no strangers to the substance. They swirl in the wake of Russian artillery or a house fire that leaves a family homeless. They are all that remain of a once green forest or maybe our own once bright dreams. So we smear our foreheads with the gritty reminder of death, and bravely repeat the phrase “In life and in death we belong to God!” It is a claim of what God has done and a prayer directed toward an uncertain future. Every time we sing this psalm, we join the faithful who have clung to its pattern. And every time we kneel and offer up our very best, we join those who believe ... that death does not have the last word; that God will act; and that the scent of devotion will linger like perfume spilled out in hope. Amen

[1] I’m quoting James Mays here. [2] Her poem is entitled “Mary, of Bethany, at your feet a third time” [3] ibid
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