But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 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.
My last semester at Harding, Dr. Peter Rice imparted to me the elegance of 2 Corinthians 2:14-16. Before his class lecture, the language of fragrance was to me a cliché. Reminiscent of Christian house art or a sign I might find hanging in a southern home, “the aroma of Christ” did not hold the same gravity to me as the Imago Dei or “Salvation History.” Yet Dr. Rice illuminated a beautiful and piercing truth found in these short verses.
In verse 14, Paul evokes the image of returning Roman legions, marching through the streets, parading their victory and their victims. Embedded in the image is a sense of rejoicing and pride for those in the empire. Every citizen would be familiar with the noise of such processions—the rhythmic stomping of laden men, the blaring of trumpets, the shouts of celebration mixed with the moans of agony—and the scent of such a scene would be unmistakable—the smell of sweat, of horses, of dust, and of prisoners of war.
Simultaneously, Paul’s intention for this passage maintains another scene, one with a different scent: the procession of Christ before his crucifixion. The scent of the flogged and beaten, of those living yet already dying, of those nailed to a wooden cross would not be unfamiliar to any under Roman rule. For the many who had witnessed a crucifixion or the few who had seen the Lord himself dragged through the streets of Jerusalem, they would know immediately what fragrance Paul spoke of.
The separate connotations of these processions inevitably leaves the reader confused; the mind instinctually rejoices in a triumphal procession, but the stench of torn flesh disallows the gut any celebration.
Too overpowering is the smell of those mocked, stripped, beaten, whipped, and paraded through ancients streets. Too overpowering is the aroma of Christ.
A preference for this potent fragrance is not completely out of reach, though. It is an acquired taste. Most will have an initial aversion to it, to many it will smell like death. They will point at it and call it such, “That is death—I have no doubt.” But for those who have been around the smell a little longer, it will begin to lose its stench. And after a while more, it will begin to even take on a lovely fragrance, and some will say, “That is the scent of life.”
This confusion of the senses is experienced daily. When we survey beauty or religion or politics or game or common sense, what to us seems like life may very well be the stench of death, and that which we abhor may be a fragrance from life to life. We need only attune our senses to the aroma of Christ.