by Ann Milliken Pederson—

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over animals; for all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 3:19).

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 Corinthians 2:14).

What is that coming up from the wilderness, like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of the merchant? (Song of Solomon 3:6).

I believe that the Holy Spirit might be more like a turkey vulture than a dove. I believe that God delights in our smell with the same joy that a dog loves to sniff the neighborhood hydrant.

In Genesis 2, God creates life with a mixture of breath and soil; all creatures share the same breath and are born from the same dirt. God inhales and exhales, and all of creation comes to life. The biology of all critters
is the odor of their chemistry.

Are our aromas pleasing to God? Do they bring God joy? I believe they do. Or at least that is what I think after reading Song of Solomon. This small, strange book of love poetry is in the Hebrew Bible as a reminder that all of our senses come to life when we love. The garden in this book seems different than that of Eden. In Eden, the garden doesn’t bring pleasure and joy, but disobedience and shame. In contrast, the garden story in Song of Solomon reeks with odors of mutual love and joy:

The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away (Song of Solomon 2:13).

These lovers flourish amid the beauty of the garden. They celebrate with all of their senses. Jews and Christians alike have kept this garden in their memories and scriptures by reciting its passages at weddings. Recently, a friend told me that he heard Song of Solomon recited at a funeral. How perfect!

Neuroscientists know when we look at images that evoke memories of smells, certain locations in our brains light up. The science of smell evolves with discoveries in neuroscience and chemistry. Like the science of smell (which lags behind the science of our other senses), so, too, Christian theology has scarcely reflected on the smells of faith.

When I was young, I was taught to hear God in the preaching of the Word and taught to see God in the reading of the Word. I was even taught to taste God in the bread and the wine. But nobody ever told me that faith might be related to our sense of smell. What would happen if instead of just eating the bread and drinking the wine during the Eucharist, we baked the bread beforehand and the odor of the warm bread wafted into the sanctuary? What if we uncorked the bottle and the fragrance of the wine reached our nose? Maybe we should teach everyone, especially the very young, that because God first smelled us, we can smell with joy the odors of all of creation. Faith is the joyous aroma of mutual love shared between God and all of creation. Where do I learn about this smell of joy?

Ann Milliken Pederson teaches Christian theology, with particular emphases in religion and medical sciences, feminist theologies, theology and the arts, and Lutheran constructive theology. She is also an ordained pastor in the ELCA.

This article is excerpted from the November 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.