What Does Worship Smell Like?

While waiting in line for a Caramel Macchiato during the holiday season a couple of years ago, I couldn’t help but notice Young Female College Student, giggling and flirting with Mr. Dark and Handsome. Suddenly she faced him square on and blurted, “Will you come hear me sing in The Messiah at Christmastime?”

He shook his head with a gentle “no”. She gathered herself together and pleaded again. He, more firmly, declined again. She stared at him for a moment and then cried, “Come on! It’s not at all religious, you know!”

(A moment of silence, please, while the heavens collapse and the earth implodes.)

I immediately begged my sense of propriety, please please please can I set her right? although internally, my usual over-analyzing and second-guessing well-oiled mechanisms were spinning any possible sensible response into a vortex of unusable phrases that would never come together until 3 am the following morning.

She may have been wrong, but Ms. Propriety told me to shut my yapper.

So I reacted to my husband later. He listed possible scenarios to get her off the hook. Maybe semester finals had turned her brain to mush. Maybe she was too besotted with this guy to think clearly. Or maybe, since The Messiah is often sung every year at Christmas she simply saw the piece as tradition and paid no attention to the lyrics at all.

“She’s probably rehearsing almost every day!” I lamented. “And anyway, how can she sing these lyrics and not see that they are completely religious! How can anyone not know?!”

But it got me thinking: Is this what I look like when I gloss over the profound?

A couple of weeks before Easter this year, my family walked into church and was nearly knocked over by the smell of incense wafting through the sanctuary. Hunter of course went all dramatic, grasping his throat, coughing and gagging. I had to keep him upright from falling down in the aisle to do the Stooges’ dead chicken shuffle. But after he was collared and we sat down, I found myself drifting within the scent back to my brothers’ dingy teenage bedroom in 1969 Congo, where they spent rainy Saturday mornings reading Tintin books while the aroma of burning incense they had bought in Kampala or Nairobi hung in the air.

On this day, the incense in church was to ask the question: “What does worship smell like?”

The story goes like this: About a week before Jesus was crucified, around the time he entered Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey to the exultant cries of throngs of people, Mary, Lazarus’s sister, approached him during dinner. She poured an extremely — and I mean extremely — expensive bottle of perfume over his head so that it got in his hair, his robes, all the way down to his feet. The disciples were indignant and rattled, “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor!” Jesus got upset with them. He said, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

I’ve heard this story a thousand times. There’s even a song (a very, very long song) about it. The perfume was worth a year’s wages, it could have been for her dowry, it was an investment, yada yada yada. (Apparently Horace offered to send Virgil a whole barrel of his best wine in exchange for a phial of this stuff).

But sometimes those seemingly odd phrases in the Bible, like the “preparing me for my burial” one, seem so random and out of place within the context. It’s stupid, but over the years, I’ve gotten used to glossing over them.

Until this particular Sunday.

The pastor made the point that when Jesus left the house, the fragrance didn’t stay in the room; the fragrance went with him.

Not only did it go with him, but with a whole bottle of this kind of good stuff poured onto his hair and soaked into his robe, the fragrance would have followed him, drifting on the air throughout all of Passion Week: as he taught the early morning crowds who came to hear him in the temple, as he broke the bread and breathed a New Covenant, as he washed his disciples’ feet. He would have continued to breathe in that sweet scent of Mary’s worship as he prayed in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, as the soldiers mocked him, and as Pilate got in his face.

Now the phrase, “she’s preparing me for burial” makes complete sense. Mary had a sense of what was coming. The perfume wasn’t a random act of appreciation. It had meaning, a week before Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Now I better understand that our simple but pure acts of worship affect not only us, but are a pleasing aroma in the nostrils of God as well.

My pastor says that Mary was the first theologian. Among the yammering, three-year-theology-student disciples of Jesus who measured and calculated and made value judgments, even though Mary could only “audit the class,” she was the only one who was always sitting at Jesus’ feet and keeping her ears open. So when Jesus said he had to die, be buried, and three days later be raised to life, she was the only one who really heard. She was the first to understand the Cross.  She got it.

I like to assume that Mary was the youngest sibling since she was always getting yelled at — for not helping in the kitchen, or for wasting her stuff. I can see her being the adoring little sister of big brother Lazarus and squeezed under the thumb of Miss Bossypants Perfect Hostess Oldest Sister Martha. She had no clout — no authority — no nothing. But what she did have was a heart overflowing with gratitude for all she had seen Jesus do — especially raising her big brother from the dead.

Every single act of worship has an aroma. Although Mary had nothing,  what she could do, she did.  When she poured that perfume over Jesus she acted out of love instead of common sense. In a spontaneous, lavish, intimate, beautiful act of worship for an Audience of One, she gave to him all she had, basically saying, “I don’t care what all of you people think; I care what he thinks.”

Pardon the pun, but I want to breathe that in.

In my writing classes, teachers emphasize engaging all of the readers’ senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, sound. In my Protestant world of worship, we’ve generally left the sense of smell to the Catholics. But let me tell you, when I now open my closet and catch a whiff of the Tresor my husband gave me years ago that’s still hanging around on a dress somewhere in there; when I walk past the perfume counters at Macy’s; when I pass the lighted, scented candles on my way into the Unplugged time of worship the young adults host every month in my church, I remember. And it makes me wonder if, 10, 20, 30 years down the road, whenever those disciples were in a place where the aroma of that kind of perfume filled the air, it took them back to that spot, back to that week before the Cross.

8 thoughts on “What Does Worship Smell Like?

  1. Excellent post! I really never thougtht of the fragrance that way, but it totally makes sense. Not only that, but it gives richness to the scripture…I love this kind of insight. Thank you for the awesome weight of truth. Truly a glimpse into the divine…

  2. thanks, ev, for another post that travels a beautiful path, keeping me guessing about where you’re going with your thoughts, then so nicely pulling it all together into perfect sense. very deep, reflective. nicely done.

  3. Leave a reply? You try. Staring at the ‘leave a reply’ box for 10 minutes and words still fail. If I could convey a scent over the internet, that might be a start. Sweet. Beautiful. Powerful. Lasting.
    Thanks Ev.

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