A few years into our marriage, my husband started calling me “The Nose.” There was some irony in this because it is my husband’s side of the family that is known for their large noses. But the reason Phil gave me this nickname had nothing to do with the size of my nose. In fact, it is pretty small. Rather, by the time our fifth anniversary rolled around, I had smelled four different gas leaks in the various apartments and houses we lived in—leaks that were verified and repaired by National Fuel but that Phil initially questioned because he couldn’t smell them. These weren’t outdoor leaks, where you might get a strong whiff of natural gas as you walk by a gas line that’s being worked on. These were indoor leaks, three of them small enough that they had likely been leaking for years—until “The Nose” came around, that is.
We lived in an apartment for a short time where for many years gas was used to power the lights. When the lights were switched to electricity, the gas lines to them were not properly capped, leading to tiny leaks all along the aging pipes in the walls. Then when we bought our first home and toured it initially with a realtor, I noted that the laundry room smelled like gas and suggested the homeowner be warned. We got a call a few days later that the homeowner said the smell was due to bleach. We bought the house anyway, called the gas company as soon as we moved in, and they fixed a leak in the gas line to the dryer. I won’t bore you with more details from my gas-identification adventures, but let’s just say it: my nose is really sensitive. (And it is out for hire if you’re interested.)
Even in people whose sense of smell has dulled with age or illness, the olfactory sense is the most psychologically powerful sense that humans have. It is often a smell rather than a specific sound or visual memory that will awaken deep feelings of nostalgia—or powerful evocations of traumatic experiences. Think of how your grandma’s house smelled when you went there for holidays as a kid. I can still imagine that mixture of mothballs and the greatest German roast beef in the world. And I recently started buying Dial Gold handsoap because the smell reminded me so clearly of my grandma’s bathroom, which I loved to explore as a child (the dentures! the digital scale! the brand name toothpaste that I so wished my parents would buy!).
On the flipside, one of the most famous lines in the history of cinema is from the movie Apocalypse Now. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, comments flippantly to his troops in Vietnam, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” while flames billow and explosions shatter the surrounding countryside. You don’t have to be a film critic to recognize Kilgore’s statement as bizarre, and I wonder if the line has become iconic because we know just how deeply smell is imprinted on us. Anyone so casually complimentary about the aroma of a toxic weapon is clearly not in his right mind.
Scientists are still learning why scents can be so powerful, but they believe that part of the reason is that the olfactory nerve starts in your brain and travels directly to the upper inside part of your nose. This nerve is made up of olfactory receptor cells, which are themselves neurons—so they communicate with the brain very quickly, usually within tenths of a second. The olfactory nerve also connects directly to the limbic system of the brain, which regulates emotion. So when we breathe in and our olfaction neurons are stimulated, so much happens neurologically in such a short amount of time that a simple scent can almost immediately flood us with longing or calm, joy, fear, or even a sense of belonging as our brains recollect and remind us of our past experiences.
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?
2 Corinthians 2:15-17, ESV
The Advent and Christmas seasons are full of wonderful smells: sugar cookies baking, pine sap from the tree we cut down, steaming hot cocoa wafting through the kitchen after I come home from a walk in the cold, smoke from a fire I warm my hands by, and of course whatever “holiday-themed” Yankee candle my kids are burning. Side note: it is now clear to me that the Yankee candle company has a neurologist on staff because the scents of those candles are both exquisite and accurate.
Paul writes to the Corinthians that we Christians are the “aroma of Christ”. Even without a neurologist on his staff, Paul knew how powerful the human sense of smell is, and the idea that people can “be” an aroma is humbling. Paul indicates that our “smell” will be perceived differently by different people—to some we will smell of life, and to others of death. As long as we communicate the wisdom and wonder of Jesus, it is not our job to control how we are perceived, even though we may want to be seen or understood in certain ways. Paul’s words, “Who is sufficient for these things?” has also been translated into a rhetorical question: “This is a terrific responsibility. Is anyone competent to take it on?” (vs. 16, The Message).
What is your smell as you await the birth of Christ? Do you have a spiritual fragrance that leads people to the manger, inviting them into the miracle of Jesus’ arrival? May our Advent aroma awaken in others their need for Jesus and the good news of his presence in the world.