When the Divine Fragrance is Everywhere

By Elsa Tamez

© Barbara Robra

14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

(Ephesians 2:14-22)

Smell is one of our five senses. Like the other senses we humans have, it involves our minds, our bodies and our emotions. When you smell something, you discover something. At the same time, you feel something. On the one hand, you perceive with your mind what it is that you are smelling. On the other hand, as the smell enters your body through your nose, there arise feelings of pleasure and delight or of disgust and revulsion. When you smell something, it can lead you to take action – to run away or to look for it – or simply to be grateful that you are alive. If you smell something unpleasant, you move away or attempt to remove its source. If it is your sister who is smelly, it moves you to weep and hug her, and you put up with the bad smell! And, if you smell something that is highly pleasing, then you go towards it and all your senses become alert. You want to see what is giving off the smell and enjoy it. You want to touch it. In other words, we feel that we are alive and we thank God for it.

This happens with everyday things, like freshly baked bread or a perfume. But, when we feel the fragrance of God everywhere, that is something much deeper and mysterious. It is an experience of transcendence in the whole cosmos, from the smallest particle to the most imposing; in all earthly bodies, also in heavenly bodies, like the stars, and even in the Church of Christ, which is Christ’s heavenly and earthly body. Experiencing transcendence in our world is experiencing that God is everywhere, as it were, giving off a very particular smell. In fact God can give off a disagreeable odour. Our present-day world often gives off this divine stench – in war, torture, rape, child abuse, joblessness and polluted rivers – which shows that the crucified God dwells there in solidarity. That despicable stench warns us that transcendence, the divine glory reflected in God’s creatures, has not been respected. But that is not the sort of smell that we want to smell.

I like to think of peace in our world and in our homes as the petals of a flower giving off a divine fragrance. It is a fragrance that leads us to discern God’s presence in all things, whether created by God or by humans. That could be the end of all human violence against other humans and against nature because, just as I cannot catch and hold in my hands that fragrance and keep it as my own possession, so I cannot dominate other human beings or whole peoples. They have a divine fragrance that restrains me. It is a fragrance of peace and reconciliation because we respect that divine fragrance in others.

The letter to the Ephesians suggests that the whole cosmos is God’s dwelling, a holy temple, like a well-constructed building with sound foundations. It calls it “Church” but, because that word has nowadays taken on a narrow meaning, I would call it “the cosmic community” in which there is room for a diversity of spiritualities. In this community, everyone and everything is alive “in Christ”, which is a deep recurring image in Ephesians. That is a way of saying that everyone and everything is breathing in God and is taking in the divine fragrance, because we live within that divine atmosphere. For Christians, Jesus Christ is “God with us”, the human face of transcendence. According to Ephesians 2:20, the human face of God is the cornerstone of this dwelling of God. This cornerstone in the building of the cosmic community is a constant reminder that he himself is peace, makes peace and proclaims it as good news (Eph. 2:14,15,17). He has the authority to do so, because in his own flesh he has experienced violence, torture and betrayal, in undergoing crucifixion under the Pax Romana -a type of military peace that believes that it is by killing bad people that peace will be achieved. Military peace is a peace without justice, a peace where people do not embrace one another.

By contrast, he who is “God with us”, who is an embodiment of peace, gives off a fragrance of peace, where no one is killed, raped, dominated or excluded. That is a peace built, not by driving back those who are scaling the walls, but by dismantling the walls of hostility. It is a peace that is not built by erecting walls to keep immigrants out or to repel armies. Such walls lead only to hatred, exclusion, fear, murder and greed.

Ephesians 2:20 also says that the ancestors of this cosmic community, the apostles and prophets who followed this divine scent, also form the foundation of this universal community. These pioneers of the community remind us of the calling for which we have been created: to live simply as human beings, as a family of God in relationship with one another as brothers and sisters, together with sister moon and brother sun. The footprints of our ancestors, the builders of our community, point the way ahead.

I can imagine peace lived in a cosmic community, where everyone has their own space, from snotty children to incontinent old people. Everyone, every thing is respected, because all have a divine fragrance.

In this cosmic community, this holy temple, this dwelling place of God, there are no weapons, not even toy guns. The nightmare of war and hijackings is left behind, buried beneath the debris of the walls of separation (Eph. 2:14). There is no violence, because true peace provides food, work and dignity. There is no longer any discrimination, because there are no longer people who are far away or people who are near (Eph. 2:13). None is chosen and none is left behind. All peoples are living in the lap of God and God’s heartbeat is peace and reconciliation. Those who were far away have not been assimilated to those who were near, and those who were near have not held on to their privileges over the others. Everyone forms this new cosmic community, blessed with its diversity of languages, cultures and ways of giving glory to the creator God.

So I can imagine peace without people being assimilated or excluded, or some dominating others. That is because the fragrance of God in others restrains our urge to put the knife in and make others submit. In this new human community people live peaceably in diversity and have left behind the devices for becoming rich at the cost of the poor and preferring those who are white and fair-skinned to those who are coffee-coloured and black. Oh yes, and it occurs to no one to feed machines instead of living beings, because this new multicultural community is intelligent and lives by the wisdom of God.

That is the sort of peace I can imagine. I see it in the letter to Ephesians as a promise that I want to believe to be possible. It gives me strength not to be afraid of the hidden forces of the “principalities and powers” (Eph. 6:12), those forces that are invisible but still hit us hard – the invisible hand that makes the currency of a country rise and fall, that makes the price of petroleum continually rise, and that makes basic foodstuffs suddenly become unobtainable. I can believe this because God, according to Ephesians, has brought “all things in heaven and on earth together” under the Crucified One (Eph. 1:10), who has risen from death out of love for humankind. I am moved by the hope that, just as the Crucified One was raised from death and exalted far above the invisible powers (Eph. 1:20), so we too have been raised from death to the same place (Eph. 2:10). I thus believe that we are all in some way “God with us”, because we can breathe in the fragrance of God everywhere and can ourselves give off that fragrance of God.

Now, of course, when I open my eyes and look out on our surrounding world, I realize that what I have just said is simply a prayer, a cry to God by God’s Spirit within me, like the cry of the earth groaning like a woman in childbirth (Romans 8:22).

Elsa Tamez is a Mexican Bible scholar and translation consultant of the United Bible Societies and Emeritus professor of the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica.

This bible meditation was first published in "
Imagine Peace", a collection of worship material from different regions of the world for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation.