A Sermon for Sunday in the Octave of All Saints
November 5, 2023 at Holy Communion
2 Corinthians 2:14–16
“We are the aroma of Christ, … a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15–16). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Is it possible to tell that someone is a saint by looking at him? Obviously in one sense it is not. Saints are neither particularly short nor tall and of no particular ethnic background. But in another sense yes, one can tell a saint by looking at him.
I have known a Christian community which I believe was full of saints, and you could tell it by their eyes—eyes which were full of light. We talk about someone having a twinkle in his eye, and that’s delightful, but I saw something more: a steady, gentle, and warm light; an sense of overflowing spiritual presence. The light in their eyes communicates to the sight what their words communicate to the ears: settledness, wisdom, purity of heart, and genuine love.
The holiness of the saints is visible to senses of someone who is willing to see it, who has eyes of his spirit opened. God desires to show his holiness, and he does this in the lives of his saints.
If there is a spiritual sense of sight, which enables us, if we are attentive, to see the uncreated light in the eyes of the holy ones, there is also a spiritual sense of smell. Saint Paul tells us about this in 2 Corinthians 2. He is discussing his ministry, and he says that “through us God 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” (2 Corinthians 2:14–16). The good news is like an odour. Those who speak the good news carry it with them, and everyone smells it. Those who are perishing hate this smell; they turn up their noses in disgust when holy words are spoken. But those who will be saved love the smell: for them it is a foretaste of the wind of heaven.
Perhaps we can understand this best by a negative example. Surely we know what it means for someone to “stink up a room,” not with their bodies, but with their faces and their words. They cannot abide simplicity, meekness, and gentleness, so every facial expression is sarcastic and every word has an unkind double-meaning. We call such a person “sour,” and it is hardly a metaphor, because it makes us want to pucker up our faces in disgust as if we had just tasted a lemon.
The smell of a saint is the opposite. A holy person comes into a room like a gust of spring air, which cools, calms, softens, and enlivens. And like the fragrant air, it is felt more than it heard. A saint speaks slowly and little, and yet he wraps the whole conversation in the warmth of his peace. As Jesus commanded the disciples: “As you enter a house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you” (Matthew 10:12–13).
Our God is a God of showing, a God of manifestation. He created a the world to be visible, a world in which we show ourselves to one another, in which we speak audible words and clasp tangible hands. He has created a world in which the sign of love is a kiss in all of its multi-sensory messiness; he has given us a church in which the life of God is communicated by chewing and swallowing.
“Heaven are earth are full of thy glory.” We sing this every Sunday. God has created the heaven and the earth to show himself to us, so that our inward eyes could see the splendour shining beneath the skin of everything our outward eyes see.
But if that’s true, why do we have such difficulty seeing it? I admit that talking about seeing or smelling the holiness of God with our eyes and nose must seem like mystical nonsense, a kind of fond religious imagining akin to reading people’s aura with crystals. Well, I don’t know much about auras, and the word “mystical” is fine with me, but it is certainly not nonsense. But it is a sense which needs to be practiced: we need to learn to see with the inward eye, and hear with the inward ear. The Old Testament tells us that “the Lord does not see as man sees” (1 Samuel 16:7), and neither should we.
Instead, “the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). And Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). We become able to see the holiness of God’s chosen ones when we put our heart at rest, when we clear it out of all the clutter so that we have a peaceful space in which to let God’s holiness visit us.
So there are, in fact, two sides to being a saint, just as there are two ways that we use the word “saint.” In Paul’s letters, a “saint” is any member of the Christian community. But in the church’s history we have also called “saints” those who display the holiness of God with special clarity. For all of us ordinary saints, God’s gift of holiness is the opening of the eyes of our spirit so that we can see the holiness displayed in those who are ahead of us in the spiritual life, and soak in their examples. Only a Christian really perceives the remarkable beauty of simple goodness. The second sense of a “saint,” a “special saint,” is what we hope to become as we see the face of God through the lives of those who live more intimately with God than we do.
“Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in” (Psalm 24:8). Open your eyes. Unplug your ears. Smell the breeze from heaven. Practice seeing the peaceful glory, and in time you will also come to show it.