I am getting those letters . The ones that ask for a “Christmas” incense and a “Biblical perfume”. I know exactly what they want, these lovely people, and that’s exactly the problem. I don’t want to say anything sarcastic or hurtful, but I also want (and try hard) to educate them. What they want is something that really, we can’t have. Not because I can’t manage to make a “Christmas” incense (complete with pumpkin pie smell) , but because Christmas incense already exists and I really can’t improve it much. “Christmas incense” properly is plain, untreated, frankincense and myrrh, straight from the fields. God made the first “Christmas incense” and I really can’t come up with any better ideas. I’m not sure why people think I should try, although I do make a seasonal incense that ought to satisfy the “Christmas craving”.
But never mind that, we’re talking about God’s incense here:
Matthew 2: 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It is generally thought that the frankincense and myrrh was probably from Ethiopia, although the Magi themselves were probably from Syria. The “Silk Road” trading was active at that time, although it wasn’t called that then, and Ethiopian resins were considered the finest in the world. (They still are –Omani frankincense is over-rated and very expensive.) It is also speculated that one of the wise men might have come from Ethiopia. It’s hard to say. One thing we can be sure of: the gifts of the Magi are listed separately, and therefore, they were untreated, unprocessed resins. They were “pure”. The account in Matthew does not say, “…and they offered him incense made from…” It just says that they gave him these resins and it tells us what they were.
In thinking about what these raw resins actually smell like when they are burned, it’s hard to guess people’s reactions. Some people love it. Others don’t care for it, and prefer a more “cultivated” or “sophisticated” scent. In other words, some people love “natural” smells and others love “sweet”. First of all, our sense (scents!) of smell (grin) is completely different in these modern times, that it would have been in 0 AD when our Lord was born.
Back then, the world smelled a lot different than it does today. Our ideas about what smells “good” at Christmas, is largely about the success of commercial marketing. I can almost guarantee that “pumpkin spice” would probably have smelled like rotten eggs to a 1st century Christian. Their noses were trained in an entirely different world and were subject to an entirely different set of sensory perceptions. When Mary poured oil on Jesus’ feet, it was spikenard, which smells approximately like old leather. Call it the “Old Spice” of the New Testament.
Don’t get me wrong: I grew up on horses and I love the smell of leather. Saddles that have just been cleaned, smell GREAT to me. But this is not what most women who write to me want. They are under the impression that the oil Mary used, was probably some kind of floral scent. Christian women are under a lot of misunderstanding about “Biblical perfume”. I cannot make a 1st century version of Giorgio or Red Door. It doesn’t exist.
Here’s a concrete example of what I am talking about. I actually possess the following oils in uncut form: Spikenard , Cassia, Myrrh, aloe
I don’t have mollusk shell (onycta) , ground up and powdered but I can get it, and I do have styrax and the other stuff that Exodus calls for.
Here’s what it actually says in Exodus 30: For anointing oil (what we might consider a perfume): Moreover the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 23 “Also take for yourself quality spices—five hundred shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much sweet-smelling cinnamon (two hundred and fifty shekels), two hundred and fifty shekels of sweet-smelling cane, 24 five hundred shekels of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. 25 And you shall make from these a holy anointing oil, an ointment compounded according to the art of the perfumer. It shall be a holy anointing oil.
Quality spices in those days, in the lands of the Bible, were things like mustard, balm of gilead, and saffron. Steam distillation wasn’t invented in those days, so they would grind these up in a bowl, and soak them in oil. The pure grains of these herbs would scent the oil, and it was more like a “paste” than anything else. It was semi-solid, and not what you think of when you think of a “perfume”.
For incense in the Temple: “Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, and pure frankincense with these sweet spices; there shall be equal amounts of each. 35 You shall make of these an incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. 36 And you shall beat some of it very fine, and put some of it before the Testimony in the tabernacle of meeting where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. 37 But as for the incense which you shall make, you shall not make any for yourselves, according to its composition. It shall be to you holy for the LORD. 38 Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, he shall be cut off from his people.”
Now, for the purists out there, trust me, I can make this. But my name isn’t Moses or Aaron, and I don’t have a “tabernacle” to put it in. Christ came to free us from ourselves, from death. He came to free us from the “letter of the law” and He came that we might have “life and have it abundantly”. We are free in Christ, to enjoy scent and to enjoy our lives now. We do not live in the chains of the past, (even the beautiful past of the Old Testament). The Kingdom is here and now. We are called to higher things, than our past, even if it is our collective past as human beings. On an individual level, each person is called by God to “taste and see”.
Whenever I get these letters I often wonder if it’s really the perfume they want, or if they are just expressing a desire for something “ancient” in their lives. People are ever searching for meaning and our world is spiritual battleground. People want things they cannot have, namely the desire to “go back” and “get it right”. We cannot go back, we can only make amends and move forward. The whim of possessing a “Biblical perfume” is really about the desire for holiness. People want to respond to God’s call, and finding it difficult within, they look for an external way to achieve holiness, as if it were a garment you could just pick up at the dry cleaners.
This is what the purpose of the Jesus prayer really is: to purify us from within. The incense and the perfumes is all external. It’s beautiful and it’s helpful in prayer, but it is not our prayer itself. That only comes from the heart. And that’s why I don’t make “biblical perfume” —- you wouldn’t like it anyway.
Instead, I’m working on a new batch for Christmas — I decided I wouldn’t make the blend I usually do, at this time of year. I’m going to make a brand new one. From scratch. Because I know I cannot go back. I can only start over, every day. I haven’t named it yet, but I am using the frankincense and myrrh as a base, of course. But there wont’ be any pumpkin pie, or cinnamon, or cassia. No cloves sticking out of an orange. I’m going to do something new. Something REVOLUTIONARY for Christmas. It probably won’t even smell like “Christmas” to anyone except me. But it will be special and I will try to keep some back for the rest of the year, so that Christ will continue to be born in my heart, all year long.
Wanna know what it is?????
Frankincense and myrrh. Blended together. Nothing else.
Icon of the Adoration of the Magi