The Incense Altar
Open Your Bible
Exodus 30:1-38, 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, 1 John 2:24-27
For years now, my mother has worn patchouli.
It smells like the woods, with a tinge of smoke and a hint of something floral. Even days after she’s visited Nashville, her invisible signature lingers on the pillow where she slept, on the scarf she borrowed, on the blanket on the couch—reminding me that we were together. I’m not sure if I love the fragrance or if I love that it reminds me of her. But I know this: when I smell patchouli in a store, it doesn’t smell the same as when it’s on my mom.
In Exodus 30, the Lord outlines a series of rich, holy, and sacred instructions for the altar of the tabernacle. He includes a recipe for anointing oil and a recipe for incense. I don’t know about you, but in the age of essential oil popularity, the thought occurred to me that I could probably whip up a batch, just to see what it smelled like. But it’s clear through His instructions that these items are meant to be special. They’re exclusive and not to be shared far and wide; they are recipes never to be mixed outside of the church. “As for the incense you are making, you must not make any for yourselves using its formula. It is to be regarded by you as holy—belonging to the LORD” (Exodus 30:37). God is ensuring that the only time His people will smell these rich fragrances is in His presence.
Psychologists have found that our sense of smell is closely linked with memory. Perhaps that’s why, when I think of my grandmother, I can still remember the tart scent of her cold cream that she’d pat on her face every night. It’s why at Christmas, I stock up on Balsam Fir candles, to extend the season just a bit longer. Fragrance is a powerful force. It helps us remember. It activates emotion. It recalls stories. It brings us back. It transports us. It slows us down. It comforts.
God knows this. He knows our spiritual as well as our physiological needs—because He created every part of us, including our sense of smell. Isn’t it beautiful to consider that God wants to activate all of our senses as we interact with Him? He isn’t limited to the spiritual realm, but wants our physical bodies to experience His presence, too.
Just like my mother’s patchouli oil leaves a trace, as followers of Jesus Christ, we carry the fragrance of Christ with us everywhere we go. “For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2Corinthians 2:15). Priests no longer have to whip up a batch of something sacred; because of Christ’s work on the cross, now we ourselves are sacred.
As you go about your day, pay attention to the sweet smell of that apple, the bitter fragrance of coffee, the grassy scent of sweat on your children. Even in life’s mundane moments, our sense of smell can remind us of our God and His extravagance.