Blindfold me. Drive a few hundred miles.
Stop your car one block from MacCorkle Avenue, in front of a little house on the banks of the Kanawha River, lead me into the house.
Ask me where I am. I’ll know.
The scent of cedar and apples, mixed with the slightest hint of mothballs will reveal your secret more effectively than sight.
I’m at Grandma’s house.
The fragrance of home will give you away.
A fragrance lingers in that old place that announces the presence of the woman who inhabited it. Gone now for twenty-five years, she still inhabits the house through her fragrance.
And you know just what I’m talking about.
There’s just something about scent that grips a person.
The magi’s second gift, the carol insists, “owns a deity nigh.” It speaks of “prayer and praising all men raising,” and calls us to “worship him God most high.”
Their third gift is a “a bitter perfume that breathes of life of gathering gloom.”
Together, the two scents create a unique fragrance to fill the house of God. The historical churches have burned this unique combination to call the worshipper to prayer.
The holy scent fills the pages of the Bible too.
All along their earthly journey, God’s people offer incense. According to the Bible’s final book, we will offer it still after we reach eternity. Heaven is evidently filled with holy smoke; its scent penetrates the souls of pilgrims as they travel toward the holy city.
The scent is also present in more mundane facets of the believer’s life.
In the Song of Solomon for example, the lover offers scented oils for lovemaking. She sings about the fragrant smoke that rises above the place of her lover’s dwelling. She longs to anoint her beloved’s body with those oils and enjoy with him the fragrance she has prepared. After their night of love, the smell becomes his mark of identification. She breathes in the fragrance to become entranced with his presence, especially when he is absent.
Later in the Bible, a sinner woman approaches Christ and pours upon his feet the fragrant oils she has been saving her entire life.
For what purpose, you ask?
Well, such oils were used for two things: for one’s honeymoon and to honor one’s loved one who has died. This woman pours her scented oil on Jesus, her chosen bridegroom.
She will never experience a physical union with him but a bond stronger than death attaches her soul to his. But she also pours the fragrance on his body because he is about to die.
Both purposes are fulfilled in this act of devotion: scented oil for love and scented oil for death.
As the scent fills the house, the Pharisees recoil from the intimacy the fragrance creates.
And they still do.
Despite the continual mention of incense in both the Old and New Testaments, many Protestant Christians find incense frightening and, some even find it diabolical.
They associate it with pagan rituals and Eastern mysticism.
To me, it smells like home.
In John Travolta’s silly movie, Michael, the archangel comes to earth. He travels with a group of less-than-holy friends. As God’s great angelic warrior walks among human beings, a strange phenomenon follows him. Women swoon, overcome by a fragrance they say is something like fresh baked bread. But it is much more than that, they claim. The scent takes their breath away. As they swoon, the track plays “It Feels Like Home to Me.”
The mighty archangel carries a scent of human’s forgotten home. The fallen human people interpret their response in an erotic way but their longing is something far beyond mere eroticism. It is an intimacy that erotic love cannot reach. But that is the only intimacy they know and it seems so inappropriate to attach to God.
That’s precisely how Pharisees respond to Mary Magdalene’s scented praise: too much, too intimate, too ‘out there’.
Pentecostals and Charismatics correctly employ the idea of incense as metaphor: fervent worship is that “sweet smelling savor” the Lord most seeks for us, they claim.
But if a metaphor is spiritually accurate, why would we reject the material offering upon which the metaphor is based? The Magi did not offer the baby a metaphor; they offered a material substance that smelled good.
So, no, we don’t need incense for worship. Nor do we need music, or nice buildings. We don’t NEED art, or anything else material. But honestly, coming as I do from a Pentecostal background, it is difficult to think what worship really means without referring to music. In fact, to most Charismatics and Pentecostals, worship has come to mean mostly music. When we say, “I loved the worship in that church,“ we certainly don’t mean the testimonies. That isn’t worship. We don’t mean the sermons; that isn’t worship. The offering is not worship. So what is left?
In other words, sound can be worship, but not scent.
Should we even talk about taste? Can taste ever be worship?
When the Lord says, “taste and see that the Lord is good,” is he using JUST a metaphor?
I mean, think about it. Human beings in love don’t just meditate and talk about love. They touch, taste, and smell one another. Every lover knows the scent of his or her beloved.
Why? Because human beings want to experience love with skin on it.
Like human love, Christian spirituality is not abstract. It is material. Our body, and not just our mind, participates in experiencing God. We don’t just talk and ponder about God. We touch, taste, see and feel God.
And, perhaps, smell Him.
The frankincense and myrrh, the sweet and the bitter, the life and the death, the love and the loss mingle and create holy smoke. It fills the house. It shakes the soul. It’s unsettling.
It’s irresistible. It’s unforgettable.
I have long ago given up trying to convince people of the worshipful nature of incense. I let it go. Except in my heart.
But when I step on the other side, the first thing I’ll notice may well be the fragrance.
“Frankincense and myrrh,” I’ll think.
Then, perhaps I’ll notice something else. Maybe, just for me. God will mix in a bit of cedar, some apples and the slightest hint of mothballs.
And I’ll sigh and say, “ahhh, that smells just like home to me.”