“Touch has a memory,” said the poet John Keats, who stared down the impending loss of his own life: death from tuberculosis at the age of 25. Keats knew the touch of elusive beauty in a world of pain and consequence, where heart and body must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways. Yes, touch has a memory.
Smell, too, has a memory, the poet Anya Silver would add, her 30-some-year-old body racked with a cancer that would claim her too soon:
And sometimes, too, I spray perfume.
On my son’s sheets, or hold my wrist
To his nose, so that after I’ve died,
The smell of vanilla will return me to him—
Overcoming, briefly, the foul smell of loss.
The foul smell of loss. Was it this fetid certainty, I wonder, that propelled the woman clutching her jar of fragrance, seizing hold of one who seemed destined to slip out her hands like everything else she knew?
What grief comprised the foul smell of loss for her? Was it the loss of dignity, the loss of community, suffered at the easy label thrust upon her by the men who saw her as a waste of time? The voices who tell her story seem more comfortable calling her the sinful woman than Mary. But hers was a culture that would have given her this label as much for moral failure as for miscarriage, for being cast aside by her husband, for being born with the loss of sight.
Was the foul smell of loss for her the missing traces of a loved one, a protector, a child, an identity? Was she desperately grasping at memories that were fading, the lingering skulk of death now cruelly easier to summon than once intoxicating remembrances?
And did the scent of loss for her include the intuitive sense that he, too, was just days away from being leveled by death’s foul reach?
They filled her mind and body and every crevice in between: these unknown and intimate layers of grief that could loiter and fade and rush back at any moment without warning, the hopeful scent of community and a festive banquet suddenly mingling with the creeping air of death and despair.
In the midst of one of these collisions she retrieved the alabaster jar of pure nard she had hidden away—the treasured contents, a lavender farmer once explained, a concentrated variant of lavender oil. Her fragile vessel held a perfume more costly than almost anything else she owned. She broke the jar and poured out her grief on the feet of the man before her. Shaking loose her hair, a familiar sign of the deepest anguish, she mopped up tears and fragrance.
When my son was tiny and I had to travel, I would bring his shampoo with me, so I could go about the day, my hair carrying the reminder of one I could hardly bear to be without. Imagine the smell of a pound of the purest perfume in a small and crowded room. The fragrance would have filled the entire house. It would have lingered for a time on her hands, in her hair, in the room—and then, eventually, it too would be gone.
It is this fleeting quality that seemed to fill the men around her with disgust, even outrage. They sharply rebuked her for wasting this costly ointment, a gesture that, even if spiritually and emotionally laden, was at best ephemeral.
Their disapproval is given in rational terms, the cacophony of their reaction attempting to drown out her quiet act of attention. That bottle would have cost over a year’s wages. The perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Their response to her and her act of beauty exposes our grave discomfort with the fleeting, our false sense of assurance in attempting to control what is uncontrollable—life, death, grief. Their presence of mind tells of our struggle to hold onto what is real and present.
My father died 20 years ago. For my sisters and me, there are now very few physical reminders of his presence left, and most days this fits with how far away he feels. But grief and memory still come unannounced. Not long ago, we opened a box that held his old camera and we were ushered again into his presence, if fleeting.
The first time I met an ephemeral artist, whose very medium is the fleeting, I told him there was something about his art that made me profoundly sad—this intense beauty and its jarring, untimely end. He told me that when he first started making ephemeral art and he would hear this comment again and again, he believed it was his gift to a greedy world, possessive and materialistic, where we labor to hold and accumulate even beautyitself, a futile attempt to fool ourselves from facing life’s transience.
But then he started to pay attention to the people who were making the comment again and again, and he realized that they were often people who had been forced to let go of something beautiful in their lives far too soon. Over the years, he began to see ephemeral art as a gift for people who need to lament, people who need permission to admit that life is both beautiful and tragic, intensely full and far too short—people who need help letting go of somethinglost.
John Keats might have agreed with this description of life: beautiful and tragic. He might also have shared the disciples’ pragmatic disgust with the fleeting. Keats’s fear was not simply a dread of dying young, but an artist’s dread of dying without leaving behind a name for himself. Heartbroken, frightened, and despairing, he asked his friends to have carved into his gravestone only these words—and not his name: “Herein Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water.”
Life has made most of us witness similarly tragic testimonies, the cruel stories of names writ most boldly in grief. The pandemic has likely made this all the more true. To be sure, there are also glimpses of hope—glimpses of shared tears, of community that remains, of memorieskept alive. Keats’s own prediction of his life fading into oblivion has of course been spectacularly disproven. By the late nineteenth century, even his grave became a destination for literary pilgrims. One of the most famous of these was Oscar Wilde, who on a visit in 1877 fell across Keats’s grave and proclaimed: “Thy name was writ in water—it shall stand. And tears like mine will keep thy memory green.”
Unmistakably, I sense the power in shared tears. I know the power in a community that can hold and hope on behalf of another when hope has been extinguished. I know there is power in collectivememory to hold and transform legacy and identity. We all know Keats’s name despite its being writ in water. In a real and yet mysterious sense, Oscar Wilde is exactly right: This dream/this name/this love/this child may well have been writ in water. But tears like ours will keep thy memory green.
But still the question for me remains: Is solidarity in grief, togetherness in the grieving, the best that we can hope for? Is our greatest comfort the occasional overpowering of the foul scent of loss with the fleeting scent of beauty?
There are elements of these gifts in the story of the grieving woman and Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus gave her room to weep and lament. He stood with her in solidarity. He remained present in her attempt to mark the moment in the way she needed to mark it—to momentarily cover the stench of loss with the aroma of hope and to hold on to him with all that was in her, even as she sensed he was slipping through her grasp. Jesus even speaks to legacy in this story. He insists that both her name and this fleeting sacrifice of beauty will be remembered. Wherever the gospel is told, so will her story be told, he proclaims. He was not waxing eloquently: this story is one of the very few that can be found in all four gospels.
And yet, I sense in this encounter of a woman’s grief and Jesus’s willingness to hold it something richer still. While the scent of her costly gift would indeed have faded, it would have clung to the body of Jesus the longest, oil seeps deeply into human pores. Long enough, perhaps, that these same disciples who questioned the pragmatic value of her act of devotion would have still been smelling lavender a few days later as Jesus knelt before them and washed their feet on the eve of his death. The scent of his nard and tear-soaked body would have transported this woman’s grief into that upper room. The scent of her loss would have stirred the disciples’ minds toward the vivid memory of her actions, their own objections and judgments, the disquieting words of Jesus that his time with them was nearly up—and his suggestion that this “sinful” woman was the one who was seeing it most clearly.
The fading fragrance of her grief and the creeping awareness that death itself was approaching would have filled the space between their hearts and minds in that upper room. The dying scent of lavender would have lingered even as Jesus broke freshly made bread with them and told them that his own body was about to be torn apart, as he poured out choice wine for their meal and told them to remember his life, which was about to be poured out like a cracked reservoir before them.
In this weighted atmosphere, I am pressed by one thought.
Jesus bore the fragrant and potent memory of Mary’s grief into his own suffering. What if every wound we hold, every tear we’ve cried and loss we shoulder is similar, carried into Christ’s suffering like fragrance seeped into his very pores? Maybe he is even anointed by it. Anointed by our own tears for his own burial.
Ephemeral artist Stephen Watson, who crafts hauntingly beautiful and fragile works of art made entirely out of spices, describes his spice installations as “markers of being, concentrations of his presence.” He describes his fragrant “paintings,” which take hours to assemble and seconds to destroy, as marking a place where he once sat, where he once worked, where he once believed.
What, then, if what we have marked is Christ’s own body and he carries these concentrations of our presence all the way to the cross?
My son, who only knows cameras to look like i-Phones, was silenced by the discovery of his grandfather’s camera. He ran his fingers over each button until his curiosity was satisfied enough to move onto another. And then he hit the button that released the back panel of the camera, the place where 35 mm film was once stretched and loaded like a canvas awaiting its artist. My sister and I smiled at his sheer delight in this mysterious contraption. And then we realized: There was film in the camera.
We looked up at each other as if we had just discovered a holy grail of sorts. This was his camera. This was his film. These were his pictures. And then wewere the ones who became like excited kids. What were we holding? How did we miss this for so many years? Where had he last been with his camera? And where in the world do you even go to get film developed anymore?
Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it was as if my dad appeared. There was something about holding somethingin our hands that felt like we were holding him. Every crevice between our heads, our hearts, and our eyes was filled with an alert sense of him. It was far more of a real encounter to us than it would have been had one of us simply recalled a story or recited his resume. It was as if he was suddenly in the room with us. And our hearts were most certainly burning within us.
Music therapists and art therapists know this is why the arts play such an effective role in healing. The arts reposition our eyes in a way that can make hope or truth somehow, suddenly, even jarringly, present and real—placing something in front of us, something to touch and see, to hear and hold, something to close the gaps between heart and mind and body, to help us reimagine. My sister and I were suddenly able to lament together a loss we hadn’t articulated aloud for years. The encounter was something that gave sudden form to a deep loss, to one missed and missing, to the man himself we so wish was still among us. And in that instance, for that moment, he was.
This gift of having something take sudden form in front of us is characteristic of the arts.
Mercifully, it is also seems to be a characteristic of God.
Days after their encounter with lavender and bread in the upper room, the disciples were reeling in tears of their own. Their grief was fresh, like an aching, oozing wound. Jerusalem itself was filled with physical reminders of their loss. Their hallowed land was now haunted, and two of them decided they could take it no longer. They walked away from something worse than a funeral; they walked away from intertwined guilt and regret, the stench of death, the death of hope, and horrific visions of a loved one in excruciating pain. The road to Emmaus is the road out of there.
For anyone who mourns a loss, you know that time plays a fickle role as you grapple with the sudden absence of what once was so solidly in your midst. At one point, it is all so fresh, so soon, and there are so many physical reminders. In the midst of grief, the closets and clothes and books and papers seem almost to fill the house with hundreds and hundreds of tombstones, physical reminders of a physical absence so deeply felt. This is where the disciples find themselves.
But the second offense of grief is that, over time, these physical reminders disappear, too. All the little tombstones scattered around the house and the office slowly fade away. And the loved one himself seems faint and hard to remember, like a ghost from a distant past.
For these disciples on the road to Emmaus, their grief was all they could see. That very same morning the women among them came running back from the tomb with reports of a missing body and an angel’s declaration of the very thing they wanted most: Christ alive again, in their midst. The text reports that these words seemed to them “like an idle tale”—and they could not believe the very thing they wanted to believe the most.
And then Jesus himself appears and walks with them along the road. But they don’t recognize him. The very embodiment of their hope and expectation for liberation walks beside them. And they don’t—or can’t—or won’t–see it.
He tells them that what they have witnessed was not defeat. The horrific death of their friend, the suffering of the Messiah, this was God’s movement toward new life. He then suggests that this is the very pattern of God’s movement in every story told in Scripture. He starts from the beginning. Chaos becomes creation, slavery surrenders to freedom, exile to return, from destruction comes re-creation, out of death emerges life.
And out of the death of the Messiahhimself God brings us to resurrection—first Christ’s, then our own.
They had seven miles of this by foot and it still didn’t open their eyes to the one in their midst.
And then they arrive in Emmaus, and they invite Jesus in for a meal after their long journey full of words. He picks up the bread, and he blesses it, and he breaks it, and he places it in their hands. And suddenly the Savior in their midst takes form before them. In the breaking of bread, torn like his own body, placed in their hands as both basic and emboldened provision, Jesus himself suddenly appearsbefore them. It is a form that remains true for them even after Jesus dis-appears. The sudden reintegration of their broken hopes, the sudden form of resurrection, the sudden comfort of their isolation and despair—in the gift of Christ himself—remains with them. And they are left communing in transparent and hopeful wonder: Were not our hearts burning within us as he walked with us on the road?
Jesus somehow both gently and fiercely embodies the hopeful suggestion that we need more than companyalong the road of grief. We need one another, to be sure; he calls us to this as well. But even the company of Christ himself was not enough to reverse the broken hearts of these disciples. We need more than a sharing of our tears in this beautiful, fleeting life. We need something more than any rational explanation of our loss could ever offer: We need the one who offers in his very form the reverse of the reality of brokenness itself.
We need the one who meets our basic need as bread, who bridges burning hearts and searching minds, who places himself in our hands—broken and blessed—and suddenly, nourishingly appears among us, having taken our very tears to the other side and back again.
My sister and I finally found a store that could develop a canister of film. There were a few comical conversations with teenagers along the way, which left us feeling very old. But we finally got the pictures back.
We held onto the envelope with every apprehension. As the despairing middle child, I insisted that we really shouldn’t get our hopes up: It’s probably something completely uninteresting. And the film is probably ruined anyway. There is no way dad will actually be in any of these photos. This was long before the word ‘Selfie’ even existed.
We knew the probabilities and yet we still shook with the hope of holding something solid in our hands, seeing the last images he took, looking at the world through his eyes one more time. What we saw immediately leveled us, and we sat in silence as tears fell on our feet.
My dad was very into genealogy. He researched ancestors on both sides of his parents going back to their immigrations to the US from Ireland and England. Part of his search involved tracking down the burial sites of relatives and going to visit them if he could. If he found them, he would take pictures.
So the last photos my dad took were of gravesites—gravestones of his mother’s mother and father and the children they buried together, including one my son’s age when she died. Here we were holding the last images my father saw through his camera lens—and they were images of loved ones who had gone before him—names writ in water, my dad’s own tears keeping their memory green.
But this was not what took our breath away. My dad had taken the pictures in such a way that the outline of his shadow was across the photos. We were holding the silhouette of my dad across the gravestones of his relatives. He had suddenly, jarringly appeared, taking form in our very hands.
Now the mysterious thing is that my dad was a good photographer and by photography standards these are terrible photos. A good photographer knows how to position light and shadow; a good photographer does not want to get in the way of the photo. And yet, I have never been so thankful for a shadow across a grave, this layered intersection of the dead and the living. It was the most beautiful gift two sorrowing children could be given.
And so I wonder: how much more profoundly is this true when it is Christ we hold in broken bread and lift to our bodies?
Because this is the gift Christ chose to leave for his sorrowing children, children he insisted would not be left as orphans. And it is not a shadow of the deceased, but a meal for the living—where somehow, some way, the crucified one himself takes form as we eat together, as we share fleeting lives leveled by cancer and pandemics, beauty and grief, and continue to anoint him with tears that he carries to the cross and beyond it. This is no idle tale, but the risen Christ himself, who embodies our every hope as the Bread—not of death and loss—but of life. I suspect if we kneel close enough, we may even catch the scent of lavender and the promise that our tears—and our names—are never forgotten.
 Anya Silver, “Paper Mill, Macon” from I Watched You Disappear (Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 2014), 20.