– Matthew 13:15a, 16 (ESV)
For as long as I can remember, since college days at least, I have marked the first smell of spring as its own sort of holiday, meriting proper celebration by drinking wheat beer (with lemon) while bundled in layers of North Face® on an outdoor patio, or firing up the grill with still-gloved hands. In the mountains of Colorado where I grew up spring is a pittance—a few days here and there with dumps of snow in between—so you learn to make the most of it, to grasp and cling to any hint of newness before the ice scraper comes out again and the few brave tulip buds surrender once again. In my new home in Virginia, however, from the very first whiff and tang of fresh earth mingled with frost, spring is like stepping into the Promised Land. It opens up slowly and steadily, spreading the wonder of its colors and scents and fruitfulness over weeks and months before giving way to the merciless heat of Washington summer.
Spring is an exhilarating season. It is a season of abundance as new animals, new crops, new flowers, new birdsong, all seemingly appear overnight as if by magic. It is a season of promise as temperatures rise and time jumps ahead to offer more light, more opportunity (seemingly) in every day. It is also, rightfully, the Easter season. Rightful, of course, because Easter too is abundance and promise, light and life, but rightful in another more subtle sense as well. Springtime is a sensory-rich season, an extravaganza of stimuli for our noses and eyes and ears and bodies to take in the wonders of creation. In the same way Easter, the utter fullness of the Incarnation, is a celebration of how God, in love, chose to become an object of our senses that we might recognize and know him, and through his resurrection also have our senses restored to what they ought to be.
Taking In the World
Our senses are, quite simply, the way we take in information, how we take in the world. About a month ago I went up to New York and visited a friend’s art gallery that had recently featured an exhibit in olfactory art, a series of “scent sculptures.” The exhibit highlighted the prominence smell plays in our sensory experience, most notably in relation to memory and instinct. As my friend noted of one scent, titled “Monkey and Banana,” the artist, a world-renowned perfumer for the likes of Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch and others, wanted to discover, “if a smell could make someone laugh.” Unexpectedly, the curiosity of this artist has stayed with me for several weeks now and awakened my own senses to new smells of spring. Now, not only do I smell the steady and overwhelming reek of mulch, which when I first arrived here ten years ago I thought was the smell of olives, I can now also discern the smell of dogwood from cherry blossom, of crocus apart from daffodil, the damp crisp of morning as having wholly distinct components from the textured, earthy smell of twilight.
This spring I also happen to be making my way through Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer-prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book which itself is a festival of sensory delights. My friend and colleague, Rev. Bill Haley, summed the book up nicely when he said, “It’s all about seeing.” And indeed it is. In her own stunningly brilliant words Dillard says so herself:
There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat paddling from its den, will you count that slight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.¹
So, in addition to my commitment to stop and smell the tulips, so to speak, I am also now consciously absorbed in the act of trying to keep my eyes open. To “cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity” as Dillard suggests, such that as I go about my springtime day I might now, with my 3-year-old son, stop to watch an inchworm inch his way along our flagstone path, or to fill the bird bath under the dogwood in our front yard in hopes that it will give me occasion to gawk at the ornately feathered bluejays that come by for a sip.
Spring’s sensory delights are as winsome a reminder as any that creation is forever hollering after us to raise our eyes, to turn our faces heavenward. Yet, it is also true that the very same senses which allow us to take in and enjoy all of the enchantments of spring are, sadly, the same senses which are just as prone to deceive us into thinking that, contrary to Dillard’s point, what we see is, quite literally, all we get. Rather than sensitizing us to the reality of God and his goodness, our sensory orientation can instead de-sensitize us to truth, rendering us deaf, blind and numb as we all too eagerly place our trust in “created things rather than the Creator.”²
Taking on Flesh
In his treatise, On The Incarnation, Saint Athanasius, one of the great Church Fathers who helped lead the First Council of Nicæa in the fourth century AD, acknowledges, along with Scripture, that a primary effect of man’s sinfulness is the dehumanizing effect it has in making us slaves to our senses. He explains that God provided three initial ways for man to obtain knowledge of God: first, “the grace of being made in his Image,” second, through “the works of creation,” and finally, “by giving them a law, and by sending prophets.”³ Still, as Athanasius writes, “Man’s neglect of the indwelling grace tends ever to increase,”4 a calamitous momentum of will bent toward destruction, and also a sad precursor to the necessity of God’s taking on flesh in the Incarnation. As Athanasius writes:
Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. The Saviour of us all, the Word of God, in his great love took to himself a body and moved as man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, halfway. He became himself an object for the sense, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body.5
It is a deep grace, in fact, that God acknowledges our pitiful dependency on sensory reality such that He stoops down in kindness to meet us in our small-minded insistence on tangibility. Even before we contemplate Christ on the cross, suffering and dying on behalf of our unabashed foolishness; even before the Resurrection when Christ conquers death and allows for restoration of the Image of God in man over-against the pull of this world; even before these monumental acts of grace there is the quietness of God bending down, taking pity, reaching out using the only language we could hope to understand. As Athanasius later writes, “…the Word submitted to appear in a body, in order that He, as Man, might center their senses on Himself.”6
Oddly it is worth considering that Baal worshippers—those God explicitly rebuked more than any other—are probably the best example of those “seeking god among sensible things.” Their worship was highly sexualized, their sacred idols comprised of mere clay and wood and stone, their human sacrifice a grotesque and horrifying—but very physical—act of worship. I remember an Old Testament Bible teacher once noted the height of the sexual act is the closest thing to transcendence humans experience and thus, it made sense—if twisted sense—that pagan worship would be sexualized. God hated Baal worship precisely because it was such a cheap imitation of true transcendence, a deceptive reorientation of our senses to serve as their own ends rather than as a means to attain the truth God set within us and in the word all around. And yet, the God of love also lowered himself to the level of sensible things precisely so that we might finally come to know better.
Our finest worship is sensory still, but obviously not the wild, bloody, orgasmic, self-indulgent worship of the pagans who, as Paul notes, in some cases did not even know the name of the god after whom they so recklessly sought.7 Instead our worship comes in kneeling before the one, personal and triune God, feeling the weight of our heads bowed low as a reminder of our humble state. It comes in tasting the bittersweet wine and dry bread of communion, such that “our sinful bodies may be made clean by His body and our souls washed through his most precious blood,” as the Anglican Prayer book reads. It comes in meeting the real, tangible needs of others with our own feeble but real provision. It comes as we consciously offer up awe and gratitude in the face of wonderfully tender moments or breathtaking beauty.
Restoring Our Senses
What is more, by taking on, dying, and being resurrected in the flesh, Christ restores our senses back to what they ought to be. Through his death and resurrection He makes it possible, once again, to sense as we ought. Not as slaves to only that which we can see, hear, taste, touch, smell in the smallness of our own finite world and temporal satisfactions, but free to re-orient our senses in such a way that our lives are lived holistically and sacramentally in the body.
This has implication for us beyond salvation of our spirit. Indeed, for every disciple still tethered to the temporal encumbrances of flesh there is work yet to be done to lay claim to the wholeness of the restored Image of God in us. As Athanasius wisely instructs, “By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt.”8
This “constant contemplation” is not a matter for our minds only, or relating only to those activities we deem to be “spiritual,” unnecessarily parsing them out from regular life. Rather, in light of Christ’s bodily resurrection we are free to contemplate God in the ordinary places, in and among the sensory bodies and circumstances to which He has seen fit to place us. We are not, after all, disembodied spirits but flesh-and-blood creatures with noses to breathe in the comforts of fresh-baked bread, nerves and appendages that respond to the kindness of human touch. Indeed, if our contemplation is to be constant, it will, by necessity, take place among the regular-ness of daily life and not apart from it. We would do well to apply and re-orient our senses to such contemplation, seeking always to avail ourselves wholly—body, mind and spirit—to the Lord that He might use us as He will.
Finally, in contemplating the ways springtime awakens the senses, reflecting on Christ as an object of the senses, and considering the resurrection as a renewal of the senses, it is also worth noting that scripture identifies the true believer as one who applies the senses for understanding. As Christ says in Mathew, “This people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed…But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.”9 Clearly this is not vision for vision’s sake, but for insight; the ears not for hearing only, but for the comprehension and apprehension of truth. In the wake of Eastertide, therefore, let us renew and attune our senses as unto Christ such that when Christ comes again we will be among those who are set apart: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”10
Kate Harris is Executive Director for The Washington Institute, wife to a good man and mother of their three young children.
1. Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. P 17. Haper Collins. Harper Perennial.New York,NY 1974.
2. Romans 1:25 (ESV)
3. Athanasius, Saint. On The Incarnation. (18)
4. Athanasius, Saint. On the Incarnation (17)
5. Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, (19)
6. Athanasius, Saint. 19
7. Acts 17:23
8. Saint Athanasius, On The Incarnation, Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Chapter 1, part 4, page 5: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.pdf
9. Matthew 13:15a, 16
10. Rev. 3:22