There is a lingering aroma of Christmas that endures through Jesus’ life on earth. Scents played an important role in the tabernacle of Exodus, the Christmas Magi presented Jesus with fragrant ingredients, Mary anointed his feet and head with perfume, and Nicodemus embalmed his body with spices.
The Evocative Power of Smell
Scents are evocative and our sense of smell connects to our memories and emotions. The smell of Pine trees brings back peaceful memories and emotions to me and the smell of rain on the dry ground takes me right back to my youth.
In Old Testament times God instructed Moses to build a tabernacle, a place of divine encounter. He specified the exact nature of its furnishings and even presented Moses with the formulas for Holy Anointing Oil and Sacred Incense. These fragrant substances were to be used only for specific purposes and were at all times considered sanctified.
The Incense and the Anointing Oil
The Sacred Incense was made of five ingredients – Gum Resin, Onycha, Galbanum, Pure Frankincense, and Salt (Exodus 30:34). Its main use was as a twice-daily burnt offering in the Tabernacle. A special little golden altar was built for this purpose and positioned in front of the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place where the Ark of Covenant was situated. The smoke from the burning incense symbolised Prayer and worship and filled the whole tabernacle with fragrance. (See Revelation 8:3-4).
The Holy Anointing Oil was also a blend of five ingredients – Liquid Myrrh, Cinnamon, Cane, Cassia, and Olive Oil (Exodus 30:23). This oil was used to anoint the Prophets, Priests, and Kings for their sacred duties and to consecrate the various items in the Tabernacle. I have tried to find out what this oil must have smelled like but the closest I can come is Cinnamon scented Pine Needles.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King, and as you will see shortly, was anointed for these sacred roles.
The Gifts of the Magi
When Jesus was about 15 months old, a group of wise men (Astronomer-Priests) came from Mesopotamia to present gifts to the new ‘king of Israel’. The timing of their journey was divinely appointed and directed and so too was their choice of gifts – Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. All the furniture in the Tabernacle was made of Gold, Frankincense was the main component of the Sacred Incense, and Myrrh was the key ingredient of the Holy Anointing Oil. In presenting these to Jesus they were proclaiming him as the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King. Perhaps Mary kept those gifts and throughout his childhood showed them to Jesus: “Smell my son and remember who you are, Prophet, Priest, and King”.
From the research I have done, it appears that Jesus was born in September 3 BC and that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem on the 25th December, 2 BC – what we call Christmas Day. So the lingering fragrance in the life of Jesus started on Christmas day.
Mary’s Anointing of Jesus
Jesus was anointed as a baby and again as a man, just before he went to Jerusalem to be crucified – the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega.
Matthew 26:6-16 (Mark 14:3-11), John 12:1-11, and Luke 7:36-50 tell the story. Different scholars have various views as to who, when and where Mary anointed Jesus. Some say there were two different events and two different Marys, but I believe that the evidence points to one event and one Mary. Mary, the previously notorious sister of Martha and Lazareth and one of Jesus’ closest friends, anointed him for burial in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper just before Jesus went to Jerusalem for the last time.
Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
His prediction was, of course, accurate and just days later he was nailed to a cross on Golgotha to experience the most excruciatingly painful death imaginable. After hours on the cross, Jesus cried out that he was thirsty and so a soldier soaked a sponge with wine vinegar, added a little Myrrh, and offered it, on the end of a stick, to Jesus (Mark 15:23). Jesus refused it, but as it was right up under his nose he must have smelled the scent of Myrrh: The lingering aroma of the first Christmas. There, amid the stench of blood and sweat, came the clean-crisp pine smell of Myrrh; a reminder of his anointing as the ultimate prophet, the great high priest, and the eternal king of kings.
Is it any wonder that Paul later penned the inspired words, ‘Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5:2).
After he died, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea took his body down from the cross and laid it in a temporary tomb. They packed a large quantity of dry Myrrh and Aloes around the corpse and wrapped it in strips of linen. The tomb must have been full of the fragrance of the expensive ingredients, just as the tabernacle of ancient time must have been.
Just days later, on the day after the Passover Sabbath, a small group of women went to the tomb to properly attend to Jesus’ body. Mary, the same Mary who had anointed Jesus at Bethany, was with them. When they got to the tomb Jesus had already risen from the dead. Only his burial shroud remained, encrusted and permeated with Myrrh. The empty tomb must have been filled with perfume; the lingering aroma of Christmas.
The Tabernacle was a place of the presence of God, as was Jesus’ body, as was the empty tomb… as is the church.
The Fragrant Presence of Christ Jesus in the Church
Paul wrote the following, speaking of himself but also of those other members of the church, the temple/tabernacle of the Living God: ‘Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life’ (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).
As the Tabernacle represented the fragrant presence of God on earth, as Jesus’ body was the presence of God on earth, so too is the church a place of his presence.
We carry the fragrance of Christ and the evocative reminder of his birth, death, resurrection, and continuing life among us. We Christians carry the lingering aroma of Christmas into the world of our day.