Monday, July 4, 2011

"Sensible" Worship - Touch, Taste and Smell

For worship to be “sensible” we need to pay attention to the physical as well as the conceptual meanings of the word. For what is perceptible to our physical senses influences our reason or understanding.

In the last two posts, we’ve considered the primary impact of the senses of sight and hearing on our worship experience. Now in this last post in the series, we’ll ponder the potential of touch, taste and smell to provide data affecting the sense of what we do.


The experience of touch in Christian worship is somewhat more limited than we have by sight or hearing. Still, considerable influence is wielded through our sense of feeling, as, for example, we grasp human flesh in welcome at the door and greet friends and strangers. Touch also finds liturgical expression in the greeting of peace by means of a handshake, embrace or kiss. In all these we celebrate our human unity and mutual care as God’s own.

Touch between people is particularly powerful in the sacraments. Baptismal washing and anointing, and the giving of bread and holding the cup for another, are human contacts signifying sharing at the most basic and intimate level.

There are many things we may touch during worship, such as books like hymnals, prayer books, Bibles. They will testify to the value placed on them by the condition they’re in—books well cared for and in usable condition will be recognized as more valuable than those that are worn and torn.


What we taste in worship is by and large limited to the Eucharist. Real wine and fresh baked bread leave a lasting flavor in our mouths and in our memories. People often resist this, complaining of the excessive expense of wine versus grape juice, and the inconvenience of baking bread as opposed to shaking our wafers from a package or dicing slices from leftover loaves. But we all know better—the expense is minimal and the inconvenience is small, both certainly worthy for our praise of almighty God.

Taste of whole-grain bread and wine is rich in flavor and reminds worshippers of the richness of food God provides in the world, food to be shared not only at the Lord’s Table, but at every table for every one of God’s children.


The sense with more clout than most people give it credit for is that of smell. For invoking memories and suggesting mental images, the ability to detect and identify odors cannot be beat.

For most Protestants, maybe for Presbyterians in particular, smell is all but ignored on the grounds that our worship does not generate any significant smells. Unaccustomed to incense though we are, there are other smells that engage us in worship of which planners and leaders ought to be aware.

For example, one of the first odors one encounters when coming into church is that generated by cleaning materials. If these are unduly harsh or recently applied, they can be off-putting and detract from more positive, welcoming odors.

In addition to soft light, candles produce aromatic odors pleasing to the worshippers’ sense of smell. (When using oil-based candles, it is often advisable to add a perfumed scent. When using regular wax candles, light them before the service and blow them out to let the smoke scent the air—this will also make the candles easier to light when the time comes.) Flowers, of course, offer bouquets of fragrance, sweetening the air as in other venues incense does. The scent of flowers, as of incense, is a reminder of the Psalmist’s plea, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense….” (Ps. 141:2a)

In some ways the most powerful smells of all for our worship come from the Lord’s Supper where we are given a feast of bread and wine. The unfortunate and over-sanitary habit of using grape juice eliminates the bouquet of wine, and the use of cubed bread or wafers minimizes the odoriferous quality of fresh-baked bread. These bread-and-wine odors are most significant in carrying the memory of the Eucharist on to every meal in our lives, where we have our eyes opened and recognize Christ as the host at our tables.

In what other ways does the sense of touch influence one’s worship experience? Does your church used fresh-baked bread and wine for Communion? Have you used incense in worship?


This is only a partial list of the ways we use our five senses in worship. The point is that there are many things, some large, some small, for planners and presiders of worship to pay attention to, because the people in the pews have a lot of sensibility and are computing meanings constantly throughout the service.


  1. The Order of Corpus Christi uses the unleavened wafer, with a savory wine, often left to the choice of the presiding minister. We also use incense for festival liturgies of special days or occasions. A growing number of our members are beginning to use these elements and smells as a result of training their congregations to their meaning.
    +Abbot Richard

  2. Don,

    On the matter of grape juice vs. wine there needs to be some discussion of issues related to alcoholism/substance abuse. Every congregation of any size has some recovering alcoholics or formerly heavy drinkers for whom a taste of any fermented liquid may be inappropriate. We also invite children to the table; having wine served could be a stumbling block.

    On an elders retreat a few years ago I brought a bottle of wine that had been given me by a pastor in Russia and opened it for our communion. At least one of the elders refrained from drinking any.

  3. You make a good point, Harry. Obviously we ought to be sensitive to needs and wants of all who come to the table, at least providing a non-alcoholic option.

    On the matter of recovering alcoholics, I remember having an informal discussion about wine at communion with members of an AA group who met at our church. It was not unanimous, but the concensus was that the context made a lot of difference--a sip of wine at the Eucharist was a far piece from a sip at the local pub. Nevertheless, alternatives to wine should be clearly provided. Another thought: there are non-alcoholic wines.

    Thanks again, Harry.


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