It hits me as soon as I cross the threshold of the church: the fragrance. Then I look up and see the flowers from which the fragrance comes, the lilies especially. It is delightful. The place where we encounter God on earth is a place of beautiful and sweet-smelling life: a garden.
In the Liturgy of the Hours for Holy Saturday, we have a reading “From an ancient homily on Holy Saturday.” 'Ancient' usually means about the second century; the author’s name is unknown. You heard Father Brian Kane quote excerpts from it in his homily if you were here for the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday. The ancient preacher refers to the recurrence of the garden as the place where our story of salvation unfolds: the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Gethsemane, etc. He portrays Jesus speaking to Adam among the dead:
For your sake, I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.
One might also infer that Christ was buried in a garden, and rose in a garden. Remember, when the risen Jesus revealed Himself to Mary at the tomb, she first thought He was … the gardener.
Of course God, the giver and nurturer of life, is Gardener of all Creation, Who restores and renews life through the death and resurrection of His Son. So to make that great work intelligible to us, it happens in a garden setting. Without this instructional element, we might continue foolishly to yearn for that other garden, from which our forebears were exiled for their willful disobedience.
But the garden that springs up in the location of Christ’s saving act of obedience is infinitely more delightful. This garden emphasizes the life and richness won for us by His redeeming work. And the flowers in our church give us here and now a hint of that same life and richness.
Because what God wants for us is in reality good for us, and pleasing, it pleases all our human senses. For that reason, eternal glory has among its attributes not only bright beautiful light and color, and sweet joyful sounds of celestial choirs, but also a delightful fragrance known as ‘the odor of sanctity.’ It is most often characterized as floral – roses or other fragrant flowers. This pervasive and sweet scent, not oppressive or stifling, has often been observed to accompany miraculous works and apparitions, as well as the lives and even the dead bodies of saints.
Saint Augustine in his Confessions described his own turn toward Christ most famously in the paragraph that begins: Late have I loved you, O beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! In it, he describes God’s working through every one of his senses: You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
God, who did not disdain our human nature but rather became Man and dwelt among us, reveals Himself by the working of all our human senses, smell included. In this way, an earthly maxim applies to our pursuit of heaven as well: breathe deep, and Follow your nose!