Scents and sensibility
One of the things I love best about the Christmas holiday is the smell of it. In the weeks running up to December 25, my flat is enveloped by tantalising aromas: the pine tree and the pine-scented candles and air fresheners.
As days go by, the flat is variegated with the sweet odours of spiced fruit for puddings and the Christmas cake, the tang of fresh clementines, cinnamon sticks infused into hot mulled wine, nutmeg and cloves, baked apples, roast turkey, bacon crackling in maple syrup and melting, buttery shortbreads.
I can also imagine other smells: the fresh air that hints of snow; hot chocolate drunk by bright-eyed children as they nose around the presents; gifts that delight the senses - lavender and rose (no doubt some soaps), peppermints and chocolates, and the smell of crisp new books that are soon to be wrapped.
But in my more reflective moods, I consider the stable in which Mary gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ. Hers was no pine-scented room with fresh linen to line her birthing bed. Hers was a stable, a cold outhouse full of animal smells. A dingy stable, a world away from the warm aromas of spice and pine trees.
Even the cleanest of stables smell unmistakeably of horses – anyone who has ridden a horse knows that distinctive odour. But hers no doubt was a tethering place for any donkeys and mules belonging to wayfarers staying at the inn.
Mary and Joseph would have been travel-stained and tired; and the hay, even at its cleanest, would have been poor substitute for a clean, lavender-scented blanket. No doubt the birth itself brought with it the sickly stench of blood.
Who could imagine bringing a life into the world in such an appalling place? And yet the one born into that dingy stable was the Lord of Glory.
On that night that the Lord Jesus Christ broke forth from the womb and appeared on earth as one of us, he would have entered a world far removed from the ‘gentle family Christmas scene’ of my imagination, let alone the royal courts in his heavenly realm.
I wonder if we ever stop and think what that meant for him, and for Mary and Joseph too. A birth of a first-born son in Judaism is a time for rejoicing and gift-giving. What did the King of Glory have when he was born that night? A dank stable full of noxious smells, and the adoration of despised shepherds, who were the only ones to receive the angelic invitation to come to Bethlehem to see the ‘thing the angels said’.
But there were gifts given to the Lord Jesus Christ, a year or so after his birth. Matthew’s Gospel speaks of the Magi who came to the house in Bethlehem to present their offerings to the King of Israel. Following the star which ‘stopped over the house where Jesus was’, they went in and presented gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold represents a coronation, with a gift and regalia fit for a king. And the two ‘scented’ presents were of special significance for the consecration of priests and kings. Both were costly and much treasured, but they had deeper resonance for Jesus than even those wise men knew.
Frankincense is an aromatic tree resin with a heady, woody scent. It had ritual significance as incense used in priestly worship (Exodus 30:34-36) and would have also been used in oils for anointing kings (1 Samuel 10:1 and 16:13). It was prized by the Egyptian pharaohs for their own perfumes and ointments.
The writer of the Book of Hebrews tells us that Christ himself is our ‘great high priest’ and Scripture proclaims that Christ is the king. Isaiah 9, which told of his birth 700 years before the event, pronounced: ‘The government shall be upon his shoulder and … of his kingdom there shall be no end’.
Exodus 30:22 lists myrrh as one of the special spices for the ‘sacred anointing oil’ that was to anoint the Ark of the Covenant and altar of burnt offerings. It was not to be poured on the body of an ordinary person (Exodus 30:32) and only to be used on priests, and in the Holy of Holies.
But the Lord was given the bitter-smelling myrrh, as he was no ordinary person. He was the priest-king who lived the sinless life that you and I could never live, in order to die the worst possible death so that the punishment for sin, that you and I deserve, would be paid in full by him.
Through our priest-king, we can come into the ‘holy of holies’ – the presence of God himself.
As the broken body of Jesus was laid in the tomb that dark morning, John’s Gospel tells us that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus anointed his body with a mixture of myrrh and aloes (a similar compound to that listed in Exodus 30:22). Indeed, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:2: ‘Christ gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering’.
That baby in the foul-smelling manger, that infant boy gazing at the wise men and their pungent
offerings, that Lord nailed to a cross, laid in a tomb and raised victorious from the grave, is the best gift in the world. Spare a thought for the scents of the stable as you celebrate Christmas this year, and remember what the wise men’s presents really mean.