This past Sunday, smell was a major part of my worship and church experience. There were a number of things that conspired to make smell such a huge part of the day. For one, we have started using real bread, rather than wafers, for communion. Real bread has a smell. The delicious aroma of fresh bread provides a sensory experience in communion that is absent when wafers are used. In addition, the flowers on the altar last Sunday were fresh-cut flowers from the church garden, and they were very, very fragrant. Standing right in front of those two huge bouquets behind the altar, the sweet, heady aroma just about bowled me over. The scent was so strong and delicious that it was almost intoxicating. It was absolutely wonderful, and combined with the smell of fresh bread, I had an experience of scented prayer the likes of which I have not had since the last time I was in a church with incense.
And then there was the picnic after church, a wonderful gathering of the community scented by the aroma of grilling chicken, hamburgers, and hot dogs. Sometimes, undoubtedly, the smell of heaven is a barbeque, or whatever food it is that accompanies community-building, people enjoying one another’s company and laughing and having a good time together, with kids running around and playing. Throughout the day, I got many whiffs of the smell of heaven as I prayed, sang, worshipped, laughed, and shared food with people of the Church community. It was absolutely wonderful.
I’ve heard that some real estate agents will scent a house they are selling with the smell of baking – either baking bread or baking cookies – before a showing. It is a smell that many deeply associate with “home” – the welcome, the acceptance, the nurturing and feeding, the sense of wholesome well-being. Many people, both within the Church and without, have compared the smell of baking bread to the smell of heaven. It is true that there are few smells that can compare with baking bread, in terms of the ability to spark both joyful anticipation and soothing comfort at the same time. In the Bible, one of the most frequently occurring images for heaven is a banquet, and certainly an aromatic banquet at that: “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, a feast of food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear (Isaiah 25:6).” The smells of delicious food – with the memories and longings that these smells evoke - are a clue to what heaven, our ultimate and truest home, would be like.
I love the smell of the beach and the rich smell of a healthy forest. But those are smells that, although they are certainly soothing, I associate with individual pursuits. The time I spend praying, resting, connecting with God and re-creating at the beach and in the woods are certainly important and are an integral part of my spiritual life. But they are not usually times spent building community. And that’s the thing we might sometimes wish to avoid but absolutely cannot, if we are to experience heaven. None of the images for heaven in the Bible are individualistic. City, Kingdom, Banquet, Wedding Celebration, Worship – they are all full of many people and, in some Biblical descriptions, many creatures. Nowhere are we given the image of our own private vacation cottage or suite, in which we might only encounter a few special people that we invite. So although I love the smell of the beach and the forest, I do not associate these with the experience of being in community, enjoying the company of an assortment of other people, laughing and having a good time together, as I do the smells of some kinds of food. My best memories of home, of community, of acceptance, of family, of being with others and being loved and nurtured and nourished, of true enjoyment – these memories smell like particular foods. For you, what is the smell that brings these associations, these memories, these holy longings for welcome, acceptance, laughter, deep nourishment and well-being to mind? What is the particular food that you associate with being “home”? What is the smell of heaven for you?