That is the after-shave cologne my dad wore when he was dating my mom. The cologne was discontinued before I was born, more than 35 years ago.
The only reason I know this odd fact is due to my mom’s recent online discovery of an old bottle of this particular scent. Excited, she sent a text message to me and my siblings. She’d already purchased the item, and now she can’t wait for it to arrive so she can get a whiff of that cologne – the fragrance that will transport her back to the days she was engaged to my father.
Smells carry significance. There’s a box in Mom’s closet with my grandfather’s talcum powder and jacket. Grandpa constantly wore that jacket in his final years of life. Every time Mom opens the box, she can smell his scent. “I am completely undone,” she says.
When I lived in Romania, my family would frequently send me care packages. Receiving a notice from the post office that I had to walk across town to retrieve a package was always an exciting event. Inside the box were favorite snacks, new music, magazines, books – whatever might remind me of home. Mom would make Chex mix, seal it in a tin, and send it along.
But, whenever I would open the box, the joy of receiving gifts would collide with the lingering effects of homesickness in the most unusual of ways. As soon as that box was open, the smell of our house would come wafting out of it. There I was, thousands of miles away, doing ministry on another continent – breathing in the specific scent of my home, the fragrance of familiarity spilling into my college dorm.
Oh, the power of a smell!
Bill Sauder, a Titanic historian, tells an interesting story about retrieving items from the sunken ship. “When you retrieve stuff from the Titanic, it’s wet, it’s rusty, and it’s rotten,” he says. “The smell that comes off it is perfectly alien, perfectly fetid – the kind of death you’ve never experienced.” He describes the lab as “unpleasant” due to the horrible smell.
But one day, Sauder’s crew retrieved a leather satchel with vials of perfume. As Sauder describes the moment that satchel was opened, he breaks down and weeps. (Watch here.)
“Suddenly, somebody opens up this leather satchel and out comes the fragrance of heaven. All these flowers and fruity flavors. It’s delicious! It’s the most wonderful thing you’ve ever had. It was just a complete overwhelming experience. The fragrance of heaven moves through the room. So, instead of being surrounded by all of these dead things, for those few minutes, the ship was alive again.”
Resurrection. New life out of death. The fragrance of heaven spilling in, out, and over the stench of decay.
Our sense of smell is powerful because it points to a spiritual reality, and that reality points both backward and forward.
Backward – the scent of home would fill my heart with memories of past joy. Forward – the aroma reinforced my longing to be back home, reunited with family.
The fragrance of new life points back to the world we came from – the perfect world where innocence was lost, a past that is now unavailable to us. We grieve the loss.
At the same time, the fragrance of new creation reignites our anticipation for the moment when Christ will return and make all things new. On that day, it won’t be the Titanic that is raised from the ocean floor, but the bodies of saints everywhere in the world. Tombs will burst open and the fetid stench of decay and death will be blown away by the overpowering scent from gardens of delight.
Charles Spurgeon once described Christian virtues as “sweet spices” – virtues of obedience in every Christian “like hidden honey and locked-up perfume within the flowers on a hot day.” He called the Christian to a life of obedience that gives off the fragrance of heaven, where the perfume of Christ-likeness becomes evident to everyone.
If Christians are to have the aroma of Christ, then the Church ought to be sweet-smelling place, where the fragrance of heaven spills out of our worship into a world that has grown accustomed to the stench of death. A little taste of paradise, a fleeting scent of delight.
God forbid we smell just like the world. What the world needs is a Church with the aroma of life.