Thursday, March 18, 2010

Make Scents

We are the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. (2 Corinthians 2.14)

The Nose Knows

My first boss was a great guy who kept himself fastidiously groomed. His cologne was his signature. While the rest of “the fellows” came to work smelling faintly of bar soap or cheap aftershave, Larry preferred Aramis—then the leading high-end men’s fragrance “sold only in finer department stores.” Although the scent wasn’t overpowering, it was certainly distinctive, and any time Larry was nearby you knew it without looking. The oddest aspect of this was the way each person’s reaction to Aramis matched his/her regard for Larry. Since he and I got along, I liked the smell. Meanwhile, coworkers who clashed with his management style never missed a chance to complain about his cologne.

Sense of smell is by far the least understood, yet clearly the most powerful, of the five faculties. Eyes and ears can’t be trusted. Taste can be convinced. Touch can mislead. But the nose knows. More than any sense, smell triggers emotional responses that affix to their sources. Christmas, for instance, carries a plethora of sights, sounds, tastes, and textures we also associate with other places and events. Yet if we catch the slightest whiff of evergreen, our first response is “It smells like Christmas.” Or we can pass a stranger in the supermarket, pick up a scent we’ve not smelled since childhood, and say, “She smells just like Great-aunt Lucille.” That brief waft looses a flood of memories about a lady we may not have thought about for years. In turn, our feelings about her shape our feelings about the scent. If she was jolly and kind, it’s extremely pleasant. If she was mean and selfish, it stinks.


Modern science and manufacturing have sharply reduced our keenness of smell. We undermine its value by hiding odors in chemical additives and fresheners. In Biblical times, however, scent was the most reliable indicator of what something was. Without refrigeration, plumbing, and mass-produced deodorizers, the world was a wretched-smelling place teeming with animal filth and deadly microbes. No amount of dressing up could conceal the pungency of disease, poor hygiene, and rotten food. Yet that was a good thing, because bad smells worked very much like today’s side-effects disclaimers—Take at Your Own Risk. Thus, the more sensitive one’s smell, the healthier and happier he/she was. What’s more, rarity of pleasant scents greatly increased the value and appreciation of their sources. That’s why two of the Magi’s offerings (frankincense and myrrh) were fragrances and Judas was so outraged when a woman poured perfume on Jesus’s head.

It’s also why Paul compares us to atomizers—walking, breathing vessels that emit Christ’s invaluable scent of life. In 2 Corinthians 2.14-15, he writes, “[God] leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” Paul returns to this metaphor in Ephesians 5.2: “Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” By itself, either comparison feels a bit awkward and unfinished. But when we combine them, we get a better idea of what Paul means by each. The Corinthians allusion focuses on our role in the world. God places us where we are to spread “the aroma of Christ” indiscriminately—i.e., not only to those who value it (those “being saved”), but also those who don’t (“those who are perishing”). In contrast, Ephesians explains Christ’s role in us by describing the fragrance we contain and emit. Paul distills it to two essentials: love and sacrifice. Now we get it. How much of what’s poured into us changes and refreshes what’s around us depends our willingness for God to release it through us.

Prior Associations

“What a terrific metaphor!” we exclaim, envisioning ourselves as divine fancy-store fragrance models eagerly spritzing everyone we meet with incomparably expensive, aromatic Christian love. If Paul ended his Corinthian atomizer analogy at 2.15, we’d be spot-on. But he makes sure to reset our expectations in the next verse: “To the [perishing] one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.” In other words, not everyone is crazy about the smell we emit. Prior associations with personal, social, philosophical, and religious clashes have tainted their appreciation of Christ’s aroma. The slightest whiff sets off all kinds of nasty memories that have nothing to do with us, or the Christ in us. We’re spreading the finest fragrance humanity’s ever known and, unfortunately for those who associate it with foul deeds and attitudes, it smells like decanted death. They push us away to get as far as possible from the smell.

So what should we do? If we were modeling a consumer product, we might go after them with the hard sell, which many believers try to do. But misguided efforts to rack up big numbers only compound the problem by attaching another unpleasant experience to Christ. Paul’s fragrance analogy reminds us His sacrificial love isn’t a commodity. It’s a gift. Whether or not it’s accepted falls to personal background and choice. Our job isn’t defending what’s inside us. It’s dispensing it. We make scents of Christ’s love and sacrifice available to all so those who are drawn to His life-giving aroma will make haste to accept it.

How much of what’s been poured into us changes and refreshes what’s around us depends on our willingness for God to release it through us.

Postscript: Instrument of Peace

We are atomizers—instruments—placed in the world to make available Christ’s sacrificial love. This haunting composition based on the Prayer of St. Francis stresses our need to be where we’re needed. It’s written by Frances Key and Cyrille Verdoux, who perform the song with their children’s chorus, “The International Peace Performers.”


genevieve said...

Pleasant aromas not only draw but people want to be where the aroma is. Some people are like that. Others enjoy being around them.

claire said...

Beautiful post and beautiful song, thank you, Tim.

The scents you write so well about remind me of this Odor of Sanctity, made up of roses and incense, that saints are said to be famous for :-))
I should combine the two really to see how it is so that I can recognize it when I happen to bump into a saint :-)))

Tim said...

Genevieve, what an excellent point, "being where the aroma is." As you know all too well, I'm convinced many of our GLBT brothers and sisters have an aversion to church and Christian fellowship because the places they've been didn't "smell right." They settle for bars and clubs because that's where they're loved and accepted.

That's why I'm also convinced we have an obligation to bring Christ's aroma back to places where it belongs. "If I'm lifted up, I will draw all people to me," Jesus says. When more of us who strive to emit His fragrance reenter the halls of faith, those who are looking for a faith-home will be drawn back. Thank you so much for pointing this out.

Claire, I was unaware of the Odor of Sanctity, but it seems like a worthwhile endeavor to try to capture its scent! Your comment did remind me of something else, though. In our tradition, we have "church mothers"--older ladies with deep faith experience. They serve a vital pastoral function by taking young people and new converts under-wing. This happens in a wonderfully organic manner; either we "find" a mother or she's led to seek us out. We discuss with her what we'd prefer our pastor not know; she says to us what our pastor can't say. The chats can get very frank.

Now to my point: these great women of faith all seem to have a certain scent--to me, it smells like lilacs and warm bread. Even when our talks lead to reprimands (and that's a big part of their task), they exude a sweet air of comfort that wraps their words in wisdom.

Roses and incense, lilacs and warm bread--the aromas of Christ!

Blessings to both of you.