Tuesday, February 7, 2017
The smell of God. . .
We are not long from the last days of Christmas and before that Thanksgiving and each of those holidays are replete with sights, sounds, and, of course, smells. It nearly kills me to smell the turkey roasting, a pumpkin pie baking, and all the other familiar and telltale scents of Thanksgiving. At Christmas the sweet smells of cookies baking, of candies making, and of the Christmas day ham are a very important part of the whole identity of Christmas.
I watched as a child how animals identity each other by scent. Who among us has not witnessed the ritual of two dogs meeting on the street? Even people have smells. We recognize the familiar scent of perfumes, colognes, and after shaves. Even the soaps that we use mark us.
Not all scents are pleasant. Some are odors. They stink. I imagine that the scent of God incarnate of the Virgin was not some sweet or clean smell of a hospital but the earthy stink of the farm, of farm animals, of hay, and of excrement. Growing up on a farm I remember an uncle calling it the smell of money. We knew better. It was the stink of pig and cow manure (though that was not the word we used). My wife grew up in the city and she found the smell of farm and ranch something less than welcome when we drove through the odorous cloud. Jesus was born amid the unpleasant but ordinary stink of a stable -- the very scent of a world filled with the manure of sin and its death. That was Jesus' first experience of humanity -- the pungent odor of hay, grain, animals, and manure.
So what does God smell like? If you ask most folks, they would probably say coffee. God smells like coffee. After all, that is the predominant scent of most congregations on Sunday morning. The coffee pots are prepared and plugged in and the pleasant aroma of our favorite brew begins to make its way throughout the building. Or perhaps there is a pot luck and the lasagna in the oven or a tuna and noodle casserole gives the house of God a different scent. But that is not the smell of God. It is our smell. The smell of what we want to eat and drink.
Perhaps it is the smell of Easter Sunday with all the lilies and the almost over bearing odor of flowers. Some find it very pleasant, indeed, but others do not welcome the smell of those flowers. It is a bit like an overbearing odor of too much perfume or cologne -- what might have been pleasant became obnoxious when too much entered the nostrils. So does God only smell once a year?
For the people of Israel throughout the centuries the smell of God was the smell of incense -- the scent prescribed by the God who ordered what kind of incense to be burned, where it would be burned, and when it would be burned. This was the smell that Zechariah associated with God when he went mute while serving in the Temple. This is still the smell of heaven according to the Revelation of St. John the Divine. But for many folks, for too many, incense is not what they associate with the smell of God or His sacred space. I wonder if it is not to our poverty that the smells we associate with God and His house are more the scents of ourselves, our foods and drinks, and the flowers we connect with a particular holy day. Wouldn't it be better to connect the smell of God with the smell that has marked His presence nearly since the beginning of time?
Lutherans have a problem with this. Not all, but most Lutherans act as if incense were toxic to them and their idea of God. Some couch it in language of health issues and dangers but I suspect that most of it (nearly all of it) is actually a matter of preference. I had a woman tell me once that it made her gasp at the odor of the wine when the elements were uncovered during the Offertory. She was not suggesting this was pleasing but too much for her to take in. Could it be that this is exactly what we feel about incense? Too much!! But why is this? Why do we feel more comfortable with our smells than with the scent of God that was decreed by the Lord Himself?
Could the problem lie with us? Could it be that liking our own smells and feeling comfortable with the scents we choose is another way that sin has manifest its stubborn will against the Lord? Rejecting incense may be a health issue for a few but for most of us we just plain don't like the idea that the space is God's, the agenda is God's, and the grace is God's. We prefer to ask Jesus to come and be our guest but we are still uncomfortable with the fact that we are His guests, standing on the sacred ground of His domain, and there only because mercy has invited us, the unworthy.
I think God smells like frankincense. I have come to associate this with God's sacred space and His gracious presence. I did not make this association, He did. He designed the smell that would and should be associated with Him. It is as one and the same time the fearful smell of a place where we must be bidden and wherein we are always guests and also the comfortable smell of the place where we know God dwells, where mercy rules, where grace is delivered, and where the Most High has become incarnate for us and our salvation. What about you?