A couple of weeks ago one of my friends had a stem of lilac blossoms radiating their heady perfume from a vase on her desk. She had carried it back with her on a flight from the mid-west and, even though it was beginning to fade, the rich fragrance was enough to carry me back home. My dad planted the lilac bush at the north west corner of the house and for years it served as the official marker of the arrival of spring. Its sweet and strong aroma will be forever linked to the lightness of being that spring meant after a long, cold winter. Just the subtlest whiff is enough to lift my spirits.
Scent memory is like that. Researchers tell us that our sense of smell is among the most indelible of the senses, with the closest direct connection to our emotions. Apparently, our brains organize scent information based on emotional responses to life circumstances. The phenomenon of aroma-therapy indirectly builds on this. There are companies that will custom design perfumes for you and for your house, each of which will conjure up specific feelings.
Because scent also creates a sense of place, with all the emotions that go along with that, it is not surprising that many of the most popular scents are those of the kitchen – vanilla, apple pie, cinnamon. I don’t think anyone has done it yet, but it won’t be long before there is a candle named “Frying Onions”! It was years after I left home that I discovered my mom would start to fry onions – even if she had no specific use for them - because the fragrance would delay the question, “When’s dinner?” and would buy her a bit of time while she thought of what to prepare!
The worship of the ancient world – Jewish, Christian, pagan – was filled with scents as well as with sights and sounds. The aroma of a burnt offering would mix with the intoxicating blends of burning spices in carefully crafted incense.
No wonder Paul uses this image when he writes to the church at Corinth that believers are to be a scent memory of Jesus – the sweet and pleasing “aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place” (2 Cor 2:14) The mere presence of Christ followers permeates the culture with a powerful reminder of Him. Some will be repelled by the stench of death – others, drawn by the fragrance of home – depending on their own unknown scent memories of Jesus, dead or alive.