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Christian Resources
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Fragrant Offerings
Using Our Sense Of Smell, In Prayer





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Fragrant Offerings
Using Our Sense Of Smell, In Prayer 

Although the memory of Christmas is beginning to fade, it is not so long since Epiphany, an occasion on which we are so busy taking down the tree, putting away the ornaments and deciding what to do with the cards that we tend to forget the Wise Men and their offerings. But the Queen remembers and every year on her behalf offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh are made in the Chapel Royal at St James's. Two of these offerings are fragrant, and it is perhaps appropriate that in the time following Christmas we should remember the importance of the sense of smell, what it means to us and how we can use it in our worship.  

This year I was made to think about the importance of the sense of smell by a charitable gimmick. I was sent an appeal by a charity which helps children who are deaf and blind. The slogan was 'Make this a really smelly Christmas for Cody'. Cody is a small boy unable to hear or see. I was sent two card Christmas tree baubles, one faintly scented I was invited to keep and the other was to be returned (with my donation) and on the back of it my favourite Christmas smell. Later I heard that the most popular smell was Christmas pudding. But it is true that smells are special at Christmas, a fir tree in the house, the tang of the peel as someone opens a tangerine, and of course the pudding. These smells are evocative and take us back…. They are special.  

For most people, the use of smell in worship suggests incense. To Presbyterians, this is often unfamiliar, overpowering or perhaps simply inappropriate; it is not really part of our culture. It is believed that frankincense has been traded in the Arabian peninsula and North Africa for 5000 years. There is an ancient trade route called the Frankincense Road leading from Oman through the Yemen to the markets of Egypt and North Africa.  

In the Bible we are told that frankincense was an important part of the very special incense ordered to be burnt before the Ark of the Covenant, 'a pure and holy incense reserved for the Lord.' It is often thought that the offering of frankincense to the child Jesus was symbolic of his priestly roll. However it is said that the aroma of frankincense represents life and that in the Judaic, Christian and Muslim faiths it was mixed with oil and used to anoint newborn babies. It is said to possess medicinal properties and in some cultures has been used to treat arthritis, heal wounds and purify the atmosphere from germs. Burning frankincense is believed to repel mosquitoes and therefore helps to prevent mosquito-born diseases.  

Myrrh, which is often linked with frankincense in the construction of incense was considered very valuable and as such, a suitable gift for a king. It is an important part of the incense used by the orthodox church at Eastertime. Its association with death is probably based on its use in embalming and mummification, but it has a wide medicinal use for its healing properties.  

We are perhaps more comfortable with the frequent biblical references to incense in connection with prayer; the symbolism is helpful to us.  

'May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.'

Incense is offered with 'the prayers of all God's people.' In Norman Nicholson's 'Poem for Epiphany' the second king : 

'had the bearing of a priest. To him the moon's movement Was a sacrament, And the taste of water and of wine, The touch of bread and the weight of a stone. And he offered the frankincense of the heart, Prayer swung in the censer on the charcoal alight, To the Child born that night'

I think there are other ways in which the sense of smell can be used in worship. Scents and perfumes are evocative and remind us, sometimes forcibly, of associations and people. I read recently of a girl who passed someone in the street who was wearing her sister's favourite scent and the sudden encounter moved her almost to tears; the sister in question had gone to live in Australia and was much missed. Flowers are often found in our places of worship. The heavy scent of expensive lilies has many associations. We meet this flower sometimes at funerals and often at weddings. Its perfume can therefore remind us to pray for those who have been bereaved but also we can remember those about to be married or newly married and pray for them. The same lily often appears in paintings of the Virgin Mary, particularly of the Annunciation, symbolising her purity, and can remind us of her obedience and acceptance of God's will. But perhaps we associate the lily most of all with the triumph of Easter and all the hope and brightness which this holds for us. What a host of memories from the scent of one flower, memories we can use in our prayers.  

There is another scented flower which is associated with this time of the year. We often plant, or try to remember to plant, hyacinths and narcissus in bowls so that they will flower and cheer us up at a time when there is nothing in the garden. But there is something in many gardens and certainly in mine. The viburnum which flowers in wintertime is in flower now. This plucky plant in my garden has so far survived 22 inches of snow and a temperature of -18 degrees. Some of the buds were nipped by the frost but others are flowering on the same stem. This plant can be for us a symbol of hope and endurance; it can prompt us to remember in prayer those who are going through times of real trouble, a wintertime of the spirit, for those who find the winter days and nights hard, who are depressed by the short days, or find themselves unusually housebound. The pink flowers and honey scent of the viburnum remind us that spring does come, that things do get better. But perhaps the best thing about this plant is its scent; it comes out in sunshine or in the warmth of a room; it is unexpectedly strong and lifts the heart.  

So the sense of smell can play an important part in our prayers as it does in our lives, with its immediate presence and power of awakening memories.  

'May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice'. 'The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God's people, went up before God.' 'You… like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.'

As we lift our hands to God, may our prayers and thoughts, the frankincense of our hearts, be pleasing and acceptable to him.  

Prayer

O God our loving Father, As we come before you at the close of another day, we lift before you our prayers and also our thanks for all your goodness to us. We have been remembering others before you in prayer and we would pray now for ourselves, for the work of this church and the people of this congregation. We thank you for the privilege of worshipping in this beautiful place, for its surroundings and history, for the numerous people who have worshipped you here over the centuries, who have made it a place 'where prayer has been valid.' We thank you for those who lead us in worship, for the ministerial team; for those who help us to worship, the choir, the organists, those who arrange flowers, those who organise services.  

We pray for all those who take part in the varied work of the church, both in the congregation and in the community we seek to serve, and we remember particularly now those who run the night shelters for the homeless. Bless all those who serve you in these ways; may they always believe that their work is worthwhile and worth doing well, no matter how routine.  

As we go home, keep us in safety; as we go to rest, may we sleep in peace. May we rise tomorrow better able to do our daily work, to meet the challenges that lie before us and to cope with grace with whatever the day may bring.  

These prayers we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen  

Bridget Cameron, Reflective Worship

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