The Aroma of the New
Mary of Bethany, the quintessential artist, brought the extravagant nard to anoint Jesus, as related in John 12, transgressing against the cultural norms of the day. The wedding perfume she poured upon Jesus anointed him as king, prepared him for death on the cross, and anticipated what is still to come. A sacrifice of love co-mingled with the aroma of the New, it created a liquid reality that transcended the chaos of the darkest day of Jesus' journey. The aroma anticipated a Wedding; a royal, cosmic wedding.
The best of the arts, then, probe through our senses to "memory and desire," hovering between life and death, despair and hope. And yet, the best of the arts also point to, or even redefine, the World to come, causing us to rise up, like Lazarus, from the dark tomb of cynicism and despair.
My wife and I recently went to see a production of Our Town by Thornton Wilder at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City. David Cromer, the founder of the theater, played the role of the narrator magnificently. On the spare, dark stage, the famed story of a small New England town was brought to life. One scene in particular stood out to me. Young Emily, who died giving birth, is caught somewhere between life and death, fighting to recover her memory. She is given the opportunity to move back in time to her 12th birthday.
At this point, the stark colors of the small stage begin to change. And faintly, we in the audience begin to detect an aroma. At first, we think that it is a nearby restaurant cooking their dinner for customers. But the aroma of bacon and eggs continues to fill the theater. The producers have a surprise in store for us. The entire back stage opens up to reveal yet another stage, filled with color and light. Real bacon and real eggs are being cooked by Emily's mother. Emily's memory, though fading away, is depicted as more real than the "reality" of the main stage, or even of the gravesite where the other characters stoically sit. Before Emily returns from her vision to die, she is given, perhaps for the first time, a full experience of Reality—fully engaging our senses in the process.
What if there is a Reality behind the reality we know What if there is a Stage behind the stage of our life? What if our "memory and desire" point to a greater Reality? What if Emily's liminal state can be reversed from Death to Life, at least in the audience's experience? The smell of the bacon is REAL, and poses powerful questions about the nature of reality, and the nature of art.
Of course, the effect on the audience is that we witness Emily's memories fading away, and we are made to feel the coldness of the earth. She settles comfortably into the graveyard with the others, losing herself in the process. This is a lament for what is lost, what is being washed away. It's a comment on the modern condition—that even before death, we are sense-less, only half alive.
For Emily, the memory fades. But for the audience, her memory has become a new reality, full of the aroma of the New. That is the power of the arts. The arts can remain a fresh experience, even though memory and desire fade.
In our liquid time, art needs to become the aroma of bacon and eggs. It is not the art that strives for novelty but the art of the familiar that awakens our memory to the core of our lives, to the morning of our twelfth birthdays. With all solid notions being washed away, as new fears creep into our consciousness, we must insist on reminding people that there is a Stage behind the stage, a Reality behind the reality. And instead of reminding people of the cold earth, we need to awaken them to recognize the deposit of what is to come. There is a banquet waiting for us beyond the veil. If all is in flux, our task is to touch the fragile earth with the promise of heaven, creating the "still point of the turning world" in the eye of the storm of life. The gospel of Jesus makes this possible.
Think of John 21. Here Jesus, in his post-resurrection glory, is cooking breakfast on the beach, and he invites his disciples to partake. Think of the fish he is cooking. Where did he get this fish? Did he simply create the fish at will? Or cause it to jump into his fire? And he is eating in his post-resurrection body. So was the fish resurrected as well? The aroma invites his incredulous disciples to partake, not only in a conversation with the resurrected Savior, but in a meal—a post-resurrection meal. The new kingdom arrives with an aroma, the aroma of the New.