It was an uncommonly beautiful August morning, sunny and clear, warm, but not yet hot, as I left my office on the university campus where I worked and walked toward the student union to grab an early lunch on a busy day. My route took me alongside a freshly-mown sports practice field, and as I loped along, mulling over one technical issue or another that was still on my mind, a gentle wind suddenly gusted across the field, pushing a whoosh of air from the warmed surface of the field right across my path. I felt the extra warmth and humidity as the air rushed around me, and I was quickly enveloped in the rich, pleasant fragrance of cut grass, which I inhaled deeply. Without warning, a very old memory flashed through my brain: I was thirteen, lying on the grass on a football practice field, having just been run over by a much larger 14-year-old ball carrier whom I was assigned to tackle. Both of the bones in my right forearm were broken, the shock was giving way to pain…and as quickly as it appeared, the memory faded.
I had not been thinking about my brief junior-high football career (just one day, as it turned out, because my arm was broken on the first day of two-a-days—in those days we did full-contact from the very first day of practice). I had not been thinking about sports at all, but rather about some programming problem. What brought that memory out of the vault so unexpectedly was the smell of the cut grass. And it happened just that one time—I’ve smelled cut grass thousands of times before and since that walk without awakening that memory.
I don’t know anything about the psychology or physiology of such things, but I can’t help but believe that our sense of smell can at times be a powerfully evocative trigger for memories, and sometimes in unexpected ways.
There are some smells that always bring memories—the smell of a cattle pen always reminds me of my grandfather’s dairy farm, for example. The smell of my wife’s perfume or shampoo will always make me think of her. The smell of a very particular sort of pizza will always bring to mind Pasquale’s Pizza in Cincinnati, Ohio in the late 1950s. The smell of a used bookstore reminds me of the library my parents took me to every week as a child. The memories evoked by smells are not always pleasant ones, but for me, it seems they mostly are.
One of the most powerful aroma-triggered memories for me is the smell of the wine (grape juice, in most of the churches I’ve been involved with) of the eucharist. A whiff of the aroma of the juice in that little plastic cup often transports me to a specific communion service on the last day of a month-long youth ministry training school I attended right out of college in the summer of 1976. I was beginning my internship year with a para-church student ministry organization, and on the final night of our month together, we shared in a particularly meaningful communion experience, in which the communion officiant had read these words from the gospel of Matthew:
While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26-27-29, NASB)
That communion observance was an unusually emotional moment for me, as I was ending my formal training and would soon begin my work in real-world ministry. The month had been a very intense and exhausting time of learning, and an equally intense time of spiritual growth. There were people I had come to know and love whom I would likely not see again. And in the swirling of those emotions, the statement of Jesus that he would wait to have that wine again until we were all together with him again in his Father’s kingdom was powerfully comforting to me. My head was bowed, and I remember tears falling from my eyes onto the inside surface of my eyeglasses as the passage was read from the gospel.
Many years later, sitting in a church service, long after I had left the para-church ministry, I remember taking my little plastic cup of juice and passing the tray down the row, and catching a whiff of the grape juice aroma—and suddenly there I was again, a brand-new ministry intern, eyes wet with tears. In a brief moment, I remembered that long-ago communion, and what Jesus had said about the wine…and then the moment passed.
I have wondered, in the years since then, whether Jesus’ followers ever had those same sorts of feelings and memories when they sat down together for the Lord’s Supper, or for any meal, for that matter. Jesus had said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The apostle Paul had written, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” As intense as my memories were, I imagine those memories and emotions were immeasurably stronger for those who actually knew him and walked with him. And I imagine that the aroma of the bread and wine always reminded them of their time with Jesus.
How and why memories work this way, I have no clue. I suspect that one day all of this will be explained and it will all become perfectly clear; we’ll see how all things do work together, and just how fearfully and wonderfully we are made. Until then, I’m praying for the grace to look and listen carefully, to inhale deeply, to feel all I can feel, and to receive every memory as a gift of grace from a loving God, who, in the person of Christ, has walked in the warm sun and smelled the cut grass, whose face has been wet with tears—a man of sorrows, and yet desirous of one day sharing his great joy with all who believe in him.
These lyrics from a song by Andrew Peterson now come to mind, and serve as a fitting conclusion to these rambling thoughts:
Into the peace of these wild things
Into the wild of this grace
Into the grace of this blessing
Speak in the peace of this place
Here at the magic hour
Time and eternity
Mingle a moment in chorus
Here at the magic hour
Bright is the mystery
Plain is the beauty before us
Could this beauty be for us?
—Andrew Peterson, “The Magic Hour” (from the album, Counting Stars)