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Featured sermon

The Fragrance of Christ

Mary Margaret Flannagan
John 12:12–19; 2 Cor. 2:12–16a
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Presbyterian Center Chapel

Christ entered Jerusalem in a triumphal procession, with all the pomp and circumstance the poor and outcasts could muster. It was a festival of misfits. Surely not the best dressed or the most educated. Surely not the civil authorities or Temple leaders. Surely not the ones with wealth and privilege—regular sanitation, a healthy diet, or even access to clean water. Those gathered on the streets of Jerusalem were the ones who had followed Christ around the country—whose feet were dirty, whose bodies were scarred by disease, and whose meals were irregular, at best. Even the disciples had traveled in the same clothes for days and weeks and months; they packed lightly, as instructed, trusting that all would be provided. And here, on the streets of Jerusalem, they all gathered: the poor, the hungry, the diseased; the outcasts, the women, the demonic. Although they were not the most chic crowd, they certainly were enthusiastic. Waving branches, singing and shouting … it must have been quite a sight …

… and quite a smell. As it does with any crowd on a warm afternoon, the aroma would have been powerful. Walking down the street after a parade today is still an odiferous journey, but then … There were no modern conveniences of port-o-potties or hot dog vendors. The smell would not have been invitational. The smell must have been sour from body odor, dirty from road dust, sweet from the donkey, overpowering any minor scent wafting on the breeze. And in the midst of it all sat Jesus. Jesus who had raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus who had healed disease. Jesus who had cast out demons and befriended sinners. Jesus was the leader and center of this choice group. Christ was the head of this parade.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians hearkens back to this triumphant procession. With Christ at the head of the line, believers trailing behind, fanning out into the world, leaving a fragrant path in their wake. It wasn’t their own odor surrounding them like Pigpen; however, it was the aroma of God wafting through creation. An evocative image! The people of God becoming a sensual trail leading to our brother, Jesus Christ. The people of God becoming the sign of a real presence just around the corner. We are not the focal point; we are not the sweetest smell in the room; we are not Christ. We are simply a mile marker along the way. A fragrant inch in Christ’s wake.

The metaphor is neither complicated, nor the focus of the letter, but it has always intrigued me. What is the fragrance of Christ? And what does it mean to be the aroma of Christ?  To smell like God? To be a tell-tale, fragrant sign of God’s presence in the world?

Ritual sacrifices offered by priests in the Old Testament were finished by completely burning the animal’s body and letting the smoke become incense for God. Although it was the smell of death, it became a sweet and pleasing aroma for both God and God’s people. It was the scent of contrition and humility, literal sacrifice and dedication. The sacrifice “set right” the people’s former wrongs. It was cleansing and atoning, restoring the people to community with God.

Jesus Christ then became the paschal lamb. As he processed through the Temple, beyond the high courts, and onto Golgotha, he became the ultimate sacrifice. No other sacrifice was necessary. His death was horrific, yet became a sweet smell for us—for his death gave us the fragrance of life. His death was cleansing and atoning, restoring us to right community with God.

Although Jesus probably didn’t smell good by today’s standards—no Old Spice or Polo cologne to mask long, hot walks with throngs of people—through the centuries, mystics like Teresa of Avila have reported a strong, sweet smell when they encountered Christ’s presence.  When stigmata appeared, in the midst of a vision, or occasionally after a saint’s death, people have reported a particular fragrance.

Perhaps Christ smelled like a lily: sweet and strong, overpowering other scents nearby.  Triumphing over any whiff of death, bringing vibrant life to our senses. Beautiful and pure, through no doing of our own.

Perhaps Christ smelled like fish. A working, common man fragrance. Familiar to his friends. Sustenance from his journey. Rarely will a person say that fish smell good, yet their pungency can travel far and wide, alerting all to their presence and possibilities.

But perhaps Jesus smelled like bread: warm and inviting. A fragrance as hearty as its taste. Communal provisions that are miraculously stretched to feed every person at the table. Manna from heaven. The aroma of life.

On our own, we don’t smell good. We are the crowd who gathered on the streets of Jerusalem. We stink of sin and death, deeply in need of Christ’s saving, cleansing act. But through God’s grace and Christ’s atoning death, we are invited into the triumphant procession, joining throngs of believers around the world through all the ages.

Personally, I am grateful for those saints who have been saturated with the fragrance of Christ, absolutely reeking of God’s presence so that the path to Christ was unmistakable. In God’s mercy, I pray that—through water, wine, and bread; dirty hands, old books, and an open heart—I, too, may waft an aroma downwind that others are attracted to (or at least interested by).

Thanks be to God who calls us from death to life!

Rev. Mary Margaret Flannagan is hymnal advocacy and relations coordinator for the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, Louisville, Kentucky.