I knew why I was there watching that priest. There being a place I did not want to be. There being a time of grief with unfathomable sorrow. There being an infant’s memorial service, occurring a mere two days after a years-ago Christmas. A parent experiencing the death of a child ranks among the worst of the worst news. All descriptions of their feelings—shocked, angry, bereft—are inadequate. Few can stand with them and say, “I understand what you are going through.”
The memorial service was held in the Roman Catholic Church where the child’s parents were members. I was not there to help lead the service, but to be supportive of the grieving family. The grandparents were friends and I couldn’t not be with them.
And so, I watched. And so, I also felt disoriented.
500 and more years after Martin Luther’s reformation, and the separation between the Catholic and the protesting—or Protestant—church, clear differences remain in how these two branches of Christianity worship.
The use of incense represents one secondary distinction.
At a key point in the service, the priest lighted up a censer (the metal container where the incense is burned) to ritualistically disperse the scent.
How strange for this Protestant nose to encounter the distinctive fragrance. The smell stays with you. And that, I assume, is part of its purpose, part of its inexplicable power. In all of our inadequate words to discern where the Holy One fits in the human times of wondrous hope or terrible sorrow, the sense of smell has its role. We are sensual creatures, embracing or rejecting what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. We Protestants may shake our heads in amusement about the Catholics’ peculiar use of “bells and smells” in their worship, but those ancient rituals do connect to some of our needs.
Following the birth of Jesus, the magi gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They were the oddest of gifts, the truest of symbols. Gold for royalty. Priests used frankincense in worship. Myrrh was often the spiced oil of choice for embalming. As most Biblical scholars would kindly note, the magi’s gifts were harbingers of the future life of Jesus: royalty, the king of kings; the priest, a servant who sacrifices; the one on the cross and in the tomb, and yet death was defeated. The believer taking scripture literally will say the gifts are factual, prophetic predictions for Jesus’ future. Other believers—like me, viewing the birth stories of Jesus as more metaphorical history—might see the magi’s symbolic gifts as the early Christian community’s literary view of the Nazarene’s life.
But when attending an infant’s memorial service, who cares about literal versus literary quibbling?
Yes, my Protestant nose was tweaked and tickled by the incense. And, when communion was shared and the priest announced the bread and cup were only for practicing Catholics, I felt the outsider.
But that smell lingered, piquant and elusive. I suppose we’re more impressed by the gold presented to the child. That’s the only gift that seemed worth anything, then or now, for we moderns. Who wouldn’t focus on the shiny yellow metal and completely ignore the dried sap from the Boswellia florabunda genus of trees? Who wouldn’t prefer the thing you can make into coins or jewelry or stack in Fort Knox rather than something best used for “smells and bells?”
However, all the gifts were and are inadequate. Even as I believe the magi were a wondrous literary creation, a fictional jewel in the grand Christmas myth’s crown, I can still imagine the travelers from the east arriving to honor the child, and then immediately offering apologies:
“The gifts are useless,” one mutters.
“Mere gold,” another whispers, unable to make eye contact with Joseph.
“We’re embarrassed, but it’s all we had,” the third says, a bit too loudly.
All the magi were so sorry, sorry, sorry. Nonetheless, they gave the gifts, heads bowed, finally silent.
There is this you see, for those who know the fullness of the story: Would Joseph and Mary trade all the gold and spices in the world for the long and healthy life of their newborn child?
You know the answer. You bet they would.
Things don’t matter. People do.
The smell lingers in my memory. How can we understand mortality? We are crushed by a hurricane or earthquake’s rampant, random destruction. We are staggered by the massacre of Connecticut school children or Parkland, Florida teens. What if this new year’s headlines are worse?
We are stunned by the solitary loss of a tiny, fragile infant; now gone for a parent’s lifetime. And thus, as in times of long ago, a priest does something foolish. Incense is burned, thin smoke momentarily swirls in the sanctuary, and we humans know we have no answers. But we cling to slivers of hope. We have each other. If frankincense was the symbol for the priestly actions, and a gift given for the child of Bethlehem, we are beckoned to remember—in the worst times—that healing is possible even for we who will always be wounded.
A scent lingers. Each life is so precious.