A scientist teaching an adult Sunday School class once asked: “What stories do you have about powerful smells?”
One older man recalled helping his uncle harvest cabbage in upstate New York. All the rejects were tossed in an old dump truck. When the dump truck was full, he and his uncle drove the foul-smelling heap through town to the dump. In town, as they were waiting for a train to pass, the truck developed a mind of its own and lifted the bed – dumping the stinking mess of cabbage on the road. His uncle held his nose, smiled and drove away.
After returning from a long vacation and ready to grill a tasty meal for his wife and himself, Craig went to his freezer to get a choice cut of deer meat. But while he and his wife were away, there had been a power outage. When Craig opened the freezer, the nauseatingly putrid stench nearly knocked him over. He slammed the door shut – too late. The rotten rancidity rapidly grew legs and bounded through the house. Although two weeks of incense, fragrances, and washing surfaces finally won the day, the pungent memory lingered. Reverse nostalgia!
Like the repulsive odor of a road-killed skunk – intense even after the passage of time – the memory of repugnant smells can be potent. In 1940, a Polish teen, Gena Turgel (1924 – ), was captured and eventually compelled to undertake arduous treks to multiple concentration camps: Plaszo, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Belsen. One day at Auschwitz, she was sent to the dreaded gas chambers. Inexplicably, she walked out alive. The morbid stink of Auschwitz saturated her memory like the perpetual sensitivity of an appendage that’s been smitten with frostbite. She observed: “I wear a lot of perfume. The stench of the camps will always stay with me. I try to block it out.”
But pleasurable smells also trigger memories. How many of us have taken a hint from a realtor and baked cookies or bread to entice a buyer? When our second home did not sell for a few months, our realtor suggested that we use essence of peach oil on our cold air returns. The next person to tour the house bought it. Coincidence?
In the Old Testament, God set up the sacrificial system and public worship so that there would be sweet smells. When a worshipper came into the tabernacle it would be like entering Park Ave Bakery – there was always the smell of freshly baked bread.
Since we are made in God’s image, does that mean God savors fragrance? Yes. Again and again, we find in Scripture that God enjoys sweet “smelling” sacrifices and incense.
The Uniqueness of Our Sense of Smell
Let’s return to the Sunday School teacher. He commented: “Each of our senses is a remarkable creation. But, if God has a favorite, it may be the sense of smell.” We were all a bit incredulous. Then he informed us that among all our senses God did something unique with the olfactory nerve. He gave it an express that flies directly to the brain without any intervening synapses. This unimpeded access may explain the potency of the sense of smell – both the stench and the bouquet.
The Aroma Treasured by God
And the bible tells us there is still more. What bouquet provides God with the greatest sense of pleasure? “As dearly loved children…walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a “fragrant” (behind this one word translation Paul uses two Greek words: “sweet smelling” + “fragrance”) offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).
We pause. How can this be? God the Father beholds his tortured flayed beloved betrayed Son gasping for breath, nailed to a cross planted in a garbage heap – the “place of the skull” – outside the city – where unburied bodies and refuse were dumped. Unless a strong breeze blew, the place was rank – like rotten cabbage – decayed deer meat – maybe even a death chamber. How could Paul double up desirable sensory impact and say that what took place at this garbage heap was a “sweet-smelling fragrance” to God?
Certainly, God saw the intense suffering of Jesus. But because God loves deeply, with a penetrating look the Father explored the heart of Jesus. God saw past the mess of Calvary to Jesus’ inexorable love. God’s probing sense of smell also went past the interfering smells of Golgotha’s pungence to the deep fragrance of Jesus laying down his life. Dear God!
Our Response to that “Aroma” – and God’s to Us
As some of us contemplate the excruciating abuse heaped upon Jesus – in a sense, holding our noses – we say: “This stinking bloody spectacle is nothing more than tragedy.” Perhaps that is all that Jesus’ death was. But, according to Paul, when we think like that, the smell of death wins (2 Cor 2:16). Shall we resign life?
Somehow others of us see Christ crucified as the greatest act of love ever to grace our planet. To us the willing death of Jesus is the “aroma of life to life” (2 Cor 2:16) – not a meager whiff or a mere tang of life – but a soul-reviving blast. We join Paul in declaring that death has lost its sting – and stench.
What does this faith look like? November, 2014, Father Greg Boyle and some former LA gang members spoke in Helena. One story of Father Greg’s is from1986, when Delores Mission Church in LA had just begun allowing 50-100 homeless men to sleep in the sanctuary. One Sunday morning, Father Greg asked the church: “‘What’s the church smell like?’ Old Don Rafael spoke up: ‘Smells like feet.’ Father Greg: ‘Why does it smell like feet?’ A woman replied: ‘Cuz many homeless men slept here last night.’ Father Greg: ‘Well, why do we let that happen here?’ ‘It’s what we’ve committed to do.’ Father Greg: ‘Well, why would anyone commit to do that?’ ‘It’s what Jesus would do.’ Father Greg: ‘Well, then…what’s the church smell like now?’ A man bellowed, ‘It smells like commitment.’ The place cheered” (Gregory Boyle, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion”). Those who are charmed by the good news of Jesus can get past the initial “smell” of others to their real fragrance.
And more. Those who catch the scent of life in Jesus somehow assimilate his delightful odor. What unimpeded access their shared Jesus’ scent gives them to God. As a mother bonds with the smell of her child – even an adopted child – so Paul writes: “We (yes, ransomed sinners like us!) are to God (to the holy God!) the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15). What mystery. “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor 2:16).