Ooh, that smell
Can’t you smell that smell?
Ooh, that smell
The smell of death surrounds you
- Lynyrd Skynyrd, That Smell
If you do not want to view something, you can close your eyes. If you do not wish to hear something, you can plug your ears. But it is impossible to completely escape smell. You may hold your nose, but you must eventually breathe. This intake of air allows odors – though stifled – to enter.
Having covered sight and sound in previous chapters, we now come to the more intimate senses: smell, touch, and taste. Both sight and sound allow us to keep our distance. We can see and hear things from far away. We do not have to draw close to an object to engage it with our eyes or ears. But, in order to smell an object, we must be in close proximity to it. Taste and touch take us even further – completely closing the gap between our senses and the objects we encounter. In order to touch or taste an object, we must personally connect with it in an intimate way.
Because smell, taste, and touch involve us more directly with an object, there is little room for deception in regard to these senses and therefore no biblical passages challenging us to discern their accuracy, as was the case with seeing and hearing. We are simply invited to perform these actions (e.g. “Touch my wounds.” “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”).
The Power of Smell: Association with Other Things
If you had to lose just one sense, which would you pick? My guess is that if you evaluated and compared your use of each sense, you would probably choose to lose smell. For most of us, smell is our least used sense. Its importance does not lie so much in certain smells but in their association with other things – especially the taste of food, our memory of the past, and the value of moral actions.
For example, it is the smell of food that arouses our appetite. The mere smell of a dish we enjoy causes our mouth to salivate. We rarely stop to consider that it is the smell of food that compliments our sense of taste. Taste would be rather bland with smell.
A familiar smell holds the power to connect us to particular time and place in our past. “Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.” A certain perfume or unique odor may remind us of a dear friend, a childhood home, or another pleasant place and time. Smells can also bring back dark memories. One survivor of Auschwitz, Barbara Hyett, wrote
I couldn’t repeat
the stench. You
have to breath.
You can wipe out
what you don’t want
to see. Close your
eyes. You don't want
to hear, don't want
to taste. You can
block out all the senses
Smells possess the power to please us or make us nauseous. Our passions can be aroused by sweet smells. A foul stench disgusts us. There is a potent power to smell when it is extremely good or extremely bad. Perhaps this is the reason that smell is used as a moral indicator. Our actions may be sweet and pleasant, or they can stink to high heaven.
There are at least four significant smells in the Bible associated with experiencing God.
Holy Anointing Oil. Israel took a public offering to provide “oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing-oil and for the fragrant incense” (Exodus 25:6). In the Torah, God gave specific instructions for the creation of holy anointing oil that was used to anoint the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant, the table, the lampstand, and its utensils, the sacrificial offerings, and the priests who served at the altar. This unique smell would be forever imprinted on a worshiper’s heart as associated with sacred worship.
Holy Incense. Specific instructions were also given for the creation of a “fragrant incense” (Exodus 25:6). Its unique composition was regarded “as holy to the Lord” (Exodus 30:34-38). As with the holy anointing oil, Israel was given another unique smell that would be associated with sacred worship.
Holy Sacrifice. The sacrificial animals produced smoke on the altar: “a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord” (Exodus 29:18). The sweet fragrance of the sacrifice rose to the Lord. “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma” and was pleased (Exodus 29:25).
Holy Food. The appointed feasts and festivals of the Lord were full of sacred meals. The abundance of food was a source of celebration. Sharing meals together was a source of community. Clement writes, “The feast is essentially beauty in profusion, life lived for enjoyment, without regard to usefulness, life free from care and responsibility. It is the sharing of friendship, living so intensely that even death seems forgotten. It is spontaneity and grace, a wholehearted yes to life, the great celebration which joins us to the infinite.”
Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a “wedding banquet” stocked with rich, pleasing cuisine (Matthew 22:1-4). The Seer of Revelation announces, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).
God ordained worship to be full of sweet fragrances and pleasing aromas. True worship was meant to smell good. Untrue worship, on the other hand, produces a foul stench, a rank odor. The actions of God’s people in worship will possess a potent smell. Those immersed in worship would go away bearing the divine aroma into the world.
Your Unique Scent
We each possess a unique scent. In her fascinating book, A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman writes, “Each person has an odor as individual as a fingerprint. A dog can identify it easily and recognize its owner even if he or she is one of a pair of identical twins.” Struck totally deaf and blind by a mysterious illness at nineteen months, Helen Keller (1880-1968) noted this regarding our unique scent: “human odors are as varied and capable of recognition as hands and faces. The dear odors of those I love are so definite, so unmistakable, that nothing can quite obliterate them.” She believed this odor collects over time, since she was convinced that all infants smell alike: “I wonder if others observe that all infants have the same scent – pure, simple, undecipherable as their dormant personality.”
Just as our bodies possess their own unique scent, over time our attitudes and actions create a certain unique spiritual scent. The question is: Are we putting off a sweet fragrance or a foul stench? Just as we pay attention to make sure our bodies exude a nice smell through the use of perfumes and deodorants, we should also pay attention to the spiritual smells we exude through our attitudes and actions.
The scriptures call us to make our lives a fragrant aroma to God. We do this by carrying the odor of Christ to others. Though many are unaware of this, the very name “Christ” carries with it the memory of sacred smell. “Christ” is Greek for “the Anointed One.” His name reminds us of the sweet fragrance of the unique anointing oil of sacred worship. Because of this, when we carry Christ with us, we carry his sacred odor. For this reason, Paul writes,
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:14-16)
We convey this fragrance of life by living as Christ did – as a living sacrifice of God: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). This fragrance is poured out through deeds of sacrifice and praise. Paul referred to the Philippians’ financial support to his ministry as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18). The author of Hebrews invites us to “continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15-16).
One helpful way to view our prayers is through the metaphor of incense. When we pray to God, our words rise to God, like the smoke of sacred incense. The book of Revelation speaks of “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8; 8:4). The rising smoke of burning incense symbolizes a movement upward toward God. It reflects our prayers that are “lifted up” or “raised” to God. The visual presence of the smoke of incense can enhance our offering of worship while the sweet smell reminds us of the sacred presence.
The Aroma of Christ
As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, we cannot help but put off a smell. His desire is that we would exude “the aroma of Christ” among all people in order that we would be “a fragrance of life” to others.
How do we come to possess this aroma? By spending time with and becoming like Christ. Through this, we pick up Christ’s scent and carry it to others. This is communicated well by an ancient tale:
An old Persian fable tells of a traveler who stopped to rest in a garden one hot day. After a time, he resumed his journey, unaware that he had picked up a small lump of clay in his garments.
When the traveler stopped for the night in the simple room of an inn, he became aware of a beautiful fragrance. There was nothing in the room that could be the source of the perfume. As he searched about, the clay fell from his clothing and he realized the fragrance was coming from the clay.
“I don’t understand,” the traveler said. “You are just a common piece of clay. Where do you get this wonderful perfume?”
“It’s true,” came the reply. “I’m only a lump of clay I have no sweet fragrance of my own. But I have been dwelling with a rose.”
When our lives follow the sacrificial pattern of Christ, our good deeds, heartfelt praise, and prayers become a “sweet fragrance” to God. We carry the odor of the holy anointing oil by reflecting the “anointed One” – Christ Jesus.
Knowing the significance of smell, I invite you to offer up your life, your deeds, your prayers, and your praise to God with the words: “May this be a pleasing aroma to you!”
 This is in direct contrast to sight and sound. The mere possession of eyes does not guarantee that we will accurately see. We may experience an illusion. Our perception may be distorted, our vision obscured. Likewise, the mere possession of ears is no guarantee that we will truly hear. We may misunderstand what is communicated, selective hear what we wish to hear, or zone out completely. We must be actively attentive in order to truly listen.
 Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder—How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007), 309.
 T. J. Gorringe, The Education of Desire: Towards a Theology of the Senses (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001), 76.
 Olivier Clement, On Human Being: A Spiritual Anthropology (New York: New City Press, 2000), 153.
 Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage, 1991), 23.
 Helen Keller, The World I Live In (New York: New York Review Books, 2003), 49.
 Keller, The World I Live In, 50.
 Anthony M. Coniaris, Do Something Beautiful for God (Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing Company, 2006), 88-89.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2007