Smells Like Spirit

Exodus 30:22-38 (NRSV)

The Lord spoke to Moses: Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant, and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand; you shall consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy. You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, in order that they may serve me as priests. You shall say to the Israelites, “This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. It shall not be used in any ordinary anointing of the body, and you shall make no other like it in composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an unqualified person shall be cut off from the people.”

The Lord said to Moses: Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (an equal part of each), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; and you shall beat some of it into powder, and put part of it before the covenant in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. When you make incense according to this composition, you shall not make it for yourselves; it shall be regarded by you as holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from the people.

I still find it remarkable how God wants to engage all our senses as we relate to our creator through worship.

God gave Moses detailed instructions regarding how worship was to be carried out when the Israelites were on the move and needed a portable facility, and these principles would continue to undergird Jewish worship once a temple was in place. As we read these instructions, it’s not difficult to let our imaginations come alive and sense the experience: the colors we would have seen, the feel of the fabrics and utensils (assuming we were in the group allowed to touch them), the sounds of consecration and sacrificial slaughter, and yes, the smells.

As we see in the instructions for the production of anointing oil and perfume, most of what was created for worship was distinctly different from daily life, set aside for use in worship of our unique God. And our experience of the holy God should be different from any other experience.

If you have ever smelled any of the items in the text—myrrh and frankincense, two of the gifts brought to the baby Jesus, are possibilities—you may understand my reaction. They can be earthy and biological in a familiar way, but simultaneously they transport me somewhere strange, a place beyond my normal olfactory experience. I then think of the promise in Revelation of a new heaven and earth, the re-establishment of holiness in all of creation.

Wow. Sometimes I can get carried away more than a wine snob with a bottle of Etna Rosso Lacryma de Christi. (Confession: I found that by running an internet search on “wine snob.”) But we should be excited when we explore our relationship with God using all our senses.

After all, God made all five senses to be used. Think about that the next time you are in worship, wherever you may be.

Lord, thank you for engaging with us as we are, where we are. Through our senses, you lift us up, and it is our prayer that through our senses you are glorified. Amen.

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