O Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air
While walking through the campus near our house a few months ago, a breeze wafted a scent across my path that positively transported me. Without warning, I found myself riding a bike along a dirt road in the foothills of my boyhood home of Colorado Springs. The smell was stinging and nutty. As I passed through more such wind-borne parcels, I was transported again to a homeward walk down the ridge above my neighborhood of Pleasant Valley on a hot, dry Colorado afternoon.
Weaving my way through the planters and gardens, I discovered the source: a berm running along a neo-Gothic hall planted thick with Prairie dropseed. The sun’s warmth had released its sharp bouquet upon the winds and had removed me from time and place; evoking memories and emotions without consent!
The anatomy of the brain endows our sense of smell with with a set of keys; each unlocking treasuries of memory. This has been called involuntary memory or a Proustian moment. “I quivered,” we read in Proust’s In Search of a Lost Time, “attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me.”
Life is aromatic this way. Not only cartoon characters are lifted from their feet by its sensory provocations. Advent is nothing if not provocative.
Thus we find ourselves among travelers: journeymen and journeywomen, traversing toward a musty manger. Magi all, panniers stuffed with frankincense. Try as one might, there is no keeping its woody citric aroma confined. Clothing and sundries and provisions alike, all fogged through with the scent. Why carry such cargo?
In a word: worship.
The temples and shrines and alters of the ancient world billowed with the smoke of frankincense. A resin that bleeds from the sides of the rare Boswellia Sacra tree, it was both familiar and mysterious. Mysterious, in that lore and legend attended its origins. Familiar, in that its scent was synonymous with veneration.
Frankincense was also to be offered daily within the Hebrew Tabernacle; its furnishings festooned with censers and bowls and acacia wood altars for the burning. It was mingled with all grain offerings and was a perfuming ingredient in the Aaronic anointing oil, which was forbidden in common use.
As the magi traveled west, it could never have been far from their olfaction that theirs was an errand of worship. The resin’s pervasive scent eliciting involuntary reminiscence of manifold venerations while, simultaneously, piquing holy anticipation for One long awaited.
Thus we sing,
Frankincense to offer have I,
Incense owns a Deity nigh:
and thus Isaiah foretold,
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.
The journey of Advent ought to be a redolent affair, with transportation upon each gust of wind.
In such fashion, the magi made their odiferous descent into Jerusalem as a worshipful plume, occasioning much vexation upon their arrival. Are we not aware of the unseemliness of worship in our world? I’m not referring to the performance of religious activities, but of the fervor and sincerity which lingers on the lives of the converted. I’ll be frank (pun inevitable), such earnestness can be quite disturbing to me. I am so often playing games. Is this the case for you also? It is the problem Advent arrives to address!
We’re told the magi made their earnestness immediately plain,
Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?
For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.
What of their reception?
When Herod the king heard this, he was disturbed,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Let us pause to remember that this was no “Holiday Season” in Jerusalem; only another day. They were eating and drinking, working and playing, going through their mundane motions. The verisimilitude and vocabulary of worship was no doubt littered through their lives like resinous tears, yet kept mostly apart from any heat by which otherworldly fumes might awake. (Even as I write, I admit there are always exceptions.)
In his lecture, “A Slip of the Tongue,” CS Lewis recounts a misspoken prayer,
I had meant to pray that I might so pass through things temporal that I finally lost not the things eternal;
I found I had prayed so to pass through things eternal that I finally lost not the things temporal.
“What I had inadvertently said,” Lewis confesses, “very nearly expressed something I had really wished.” And so we find Jerusalem. And so we often find ourselves as well. Passing through Advent’s eternal fragrances so as not to lose the temporal.
The worshipful perfume of the magi’s procession became in Jerusalem and in the house of Herod a stench; portending divine disruption. He assembled together an otherwise lackadaisical collection of priests and teachers, who confirmed that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. The client king then began imagining a decidedly darker delegation fit for the occasion.
Decades later, St. Paul would discuss this stark disparity regarding the “aroma of Christ,” which is the selfsame aroma of Advent:
To one a fragrance from death to death,
to the other a fragrance from life to life.
To the earth-bound, Advent reeks of decay – disgruntling them over the transience of their terrestrial horizons. “Vanity! Vanity!” it nags. “A chasing after the wind!” It is in this spirit that our contemporary consumerist holiday has been realized, which commodifies sacred melodies of Christ’s mass, relegating them to background murmur within an excited consumptive mode.
Yet, among the pilgrim-hearted, Advent is a fragrance from life to life; rousing us from misdirected sleepwalks; reminding us that these consumptive lands can never be our final satisfaction. Lewis infers, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
The beleaguered hymnodist Edmund Sears penned “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” In a later work titled Foregleams and Foreshadows of Immortality, he wrote,
Let the instinct of home be destroyed, and man would be utterly demoralized, or hopelessly insane. His life becomes aimless, and he wanters in spiritual vagabondism, he knows not whither or for what.
In mysterious affect, the aroma of Advent awakes homing instincts for a place we’ve never yet been, and we must, in the words of Proust, “attend to the extraordinary things happening within.”
“Descend into your heart,” Sears admonished, “and you will find there a deep and unquenchable instinct which belongs to the spiritual nature. It is the instinct for home.”
Frederick Buechner concluded his essay “The Longing for Home” with these words,
I cannot claim that I have found the home I long for every day of my life, not by a long shot, but I believe that in my heart I have found, and have maybe always known, the way that leads to it. The home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is.
Jerusalem was, for the magi, a mistaken way-station; the wrong city of David. Not the bustling city of David’s complicated kingship, but the quieter hamlet of David’s pastoral childhood.
They’d been guided by the star but were briefly misguided by suppositions. During one of his customary conversational sermons, the Nicaraguan priest Ernesto Cardenal discussed this with his parishioners. A young man named Adán speculated,
The Gospel says later when they left they saw the star again. That means that when they reached Jerusalem the star wasn’t guiding them. They’d lost it.
The path of Advent is notoriously easy to lose. It doesn’t always lead where we expect. There are times when our sense of smell must compensate for our failing sight.
We know by now that one loses one’s sense of smell at great peril. This is true in more ways than one. We carry the frankincense with us on the journey of Advent in the same way one ties a string around one’s finger; to remind ourselves that this is about finding a place of worship.
As mentioned previously, the magi were an unnumbered band; not likely the fabled “three kings.” Nevertheless, these portrayals have become means by which rich meditations have emerged.
Dorothy Sayers notably wrote a gospel play for a 1941 BBC broadcast, in which the characters of the “three kings” appear. Upon their departure, Herod mocks their claim that this king will reign through love. “You cannot rule men through love,” he scoffs. “When you find your king, tell him so. Only three things will govern a people – fear and greed and the promise of security.”
The Jerusalem of Herod did not pass the smell test, and onward they traversed.
Sayers places the gift of frankincense in the possession of Caspar, whom she portrays as a wizened old noble preoccupied with worship and wisdom. Upon entering their low-slung abode, he remarks,
No place is too lowly to kneel in.
There is more holiness here than in King Herod’s Temple.
The Scriptures tell us the magi proceeded “overjoyed” into Bethlehem and, upon entering the house, “bowed down and worshipped him.” It was an Advent consummation!
They then “opened their treasuries” and presented the holy Child with three gifts, frankincense among them. May the frankincense be for us an aromatic atlas; an interior treasury transporting us to Emmanuel, which not only means “God with us” but also “us with God.”
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt. 6:21)