The Aroma of God Among Us
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; 6:14—7:1
Key Idea: This lesson examines the connection between 2 Corinthians 2:14–17 and 6:14–17 in light of the ancient practice of epiphany processions. Paul uses processions or parades as a metaphor to clarify his authority and to emphasize the idea that all followers of Christ are called to show their faith in action.
N. T. Wright, in his book, Paul, For Everyone: 2 Corinthians, shares how a sniff or two can bring forth a flood of memories. He writes: “I sniffed again. Then, as though from far away, I saw myself standing in a room with the sunlight flooding in through a French window. A grand piano. A glass-fronted bookcase. A fire in the grate. And somewhere in the room—perhaps on tables at the side, covered with cut flowers and photographs—someone had been using a particular furniture polish. The smell had taken me right back not only to the visual memory, but to the boyhood emotions of security and enjoyment, memories of holidays and games and good food, of grandparents, uncles and aunts. Smells can penetrate recesses of memory and imagination that the other senses can’t get near.” (page 23)
I think that most of us have a floodgate of memories that can be freed with a simple “scent memory.” Can you identify a scent that is sure to bring you to another time and place? For me, the scent of pears and a pipe brings my grandfather to mind; baking bread transports me to the kitchen of my grandmother’s neighbor, Mrs. King, a kindly widow who baked loaves of bread every early morning to make extra income; cinnamon gum reminds me of my mother, a nurse who always carried a stick of gum in her uniform pocket (“just in case”). All bring happy recollections of dearly loved people.
So why am I reflecting on these happy memories brought upon by the memory of a fragrance? According to the scripture at hand, “the fragrance that comes in knowing him” marks us as holy people. “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 . . . .” (2 Cor. 2:14-15) The aroma of God—I’ve often considered what God looks like, and I sometimes imagine what the comfort of God feels like, but I’ve never imagined what God smells like! Imagining loved ones and the ways unexpected smells can bring them immediately back to mind, helps this image come to life for me in a surprising way.
Let’s talk processional. Other than weddings and parades with cartoony or sparkly floats on major holidays, how many of us have really pondered processionals? Thanks to this study, I have begun to more fully consider the procession as more than a spectacle but instead a way to set aside time outside of time (if you will) where the community comes together in a shared purpose, for example, a celebration or protest or commemoration. In the study, Elizabeth lifts up the theory of Paul Brooks Duff who suggests that Paul, in this passage, was imagining an epiphany procession (this procession brought the holy to the people; the people were called to pay attention through the call of a herald and through the burning of aromatics) and, despite the word used in the NRSV translation, not a triumphant processional (for example, a parade of victorious warriors and their captives). Ancient epiphany processionals engaged several senses: sight, sound, and aromas (incense)! The fragrance lingered in the noses and hearts of observers well after the procession had moved down the road and up the hill!
So let’s talk heralds and incense. Well, heralds. My married surname is Herold. This fact always brings a smile during Advent when the church choir (or Amy Grant or Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Pentatonix, etc.) sings, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” That I’m a relatively reserved person with a name that promises proclamation (in a well-known carol, no less!) seems to me, when I think on it, a bit humorous and a tad intimidating.
But living in proclamation with Christ as our leader is how, I think, Paul envisions the Christian life. “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.” (2 Cor. 2:14) Proclamation doesn’t mean just proclaiming and (here’s that word) heralding Christ as promise of “peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled” (words from the carol, see the red/purple hymnal, Glory to God, pages 119 and 127). Proclamation speaks to, as I read it, the serious nature of our walk in the faith because “through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.” Or: “Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way to salvation—an aroma redolent of life.” (Eugene H. Peterson, The Message Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language, (Colorado Springs: Alive Communications, 2003) 2 Cor. 14-16)
We are, to the world, the living “fragrance that comes from knowing him.” In other words, we cannot just trudge through the processional, we are asked to carry into the world the life-giving message (and roll up our sleeves and do the work) of Christ. We are participants not observers on the sidelines. This brings to mind another well-loved hymn that gently reminds, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” (“We Are One in the Spirit,” Glory to God, page 300).
I conclude with the two questions that Elizabeth, well, concluded this lesson with (see page 56). These questions continue to linger in my consciousness as I continue my own walk as a Herold/herald! Elizabeth asks: “Where do we smell, see, and otherwise experience the aroma of God in the world? How do we brush up against the divine and carry holiness into the crowds of today?” Maybe the aroma and the other things that set us apart as followers of Christ are the things that keep us from being processionals of one! We know who’s with us in this march.