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The Fragrance of Life

You visit her home for the first time. As you get up to go, your host pulls out a perfume bottle and gives you a quick spray. Startled? Yes. And so was a missionary lady visiting in the tent of a Bedouin woman. That quick spray was her culturally-appropriate good-bye hug. Perfume gets our attention. A good smell delights us, even blesses us. Breathe in the fragrance of a perfect red rose, a magnolia in bloom, pine needles in wreaths or oranges bedecked with cinnamon sticks and cloves. Proverbs 27:9 says, “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart...”

God created good smells, not just for our enjoyment, but to separate the holy from the profane. In the book of Exodus, He instructed Moses to take spices to make holy anointing oil: liquid myrrh, cinnamon, cane, cassia and olive oil. They produced “a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer.” Used to anoint the Tent of Meeting, and the objects inside, the oil rendered them holy. All who touched them became holy too, set apart for God. But for anyone daring to produce the oil for personal use, the price would prove high (Exodus 30:33).

The cost of fine perfumes has always surpassed what most people could afford. Myrrh, an oily, brownish substance, oozes from a scrubby thorn tree. Yet even in the time of the pharaohs, a pound of it cost the equivalent of several thousand dollars. Attar, a fragrant essential oil, distilled from fresh rose petals, demands 250 lbs. of expensive roses to produce one ounce of the liquid gold.

The word perfume comes from the Latin per fumum “through smoke.” Indeed, the first perfume created was incense, yielding a pleasant odor when burned. Today the essential oils needed to produce fine perfumes are extracted from flowers, herbs, leaves, stalks, roots or fruits by steam distillation. Various methods of extraction involve chopping and crushing plant material and heating by direct flame, or steaming the plant material suspended on a grid, or heating the grid itself on which the materials are laid. Citrus oils are squeezed, decanted and centrifuged. Other delicate oils may be extracted by solvents. Flowers that do not yield much oil are pressed into fat to force extraction. Sometimes the process is expedited by heating the fat. What brutal treatments for such tender elements!

God, the Master Perfumer, knew the price of covering and atoning for the stench of our sins. Jesus was brutalized for us, because of us, so we could be anointed with God’s holy oil and be set apart to serve Him. Mary served Jesus even before He endured the cross when she poured about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume, on His feet. She identified with his coming death, probably unwittingly. Today God spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ through those who believe in Him (2 Corinthians 2:14).

Just as God prescribed the ingredients for the ancient anointing oil, He mixes the events of our lives to produce in each of us His designer fragrance. Perfumes may require scores of ingredients. They unite sweet lavender, rosemary, and sandalwood with bitter orange, and acerbic lemon and lime. And so pain, grief, illness, poverty and tragedy blend with joy, success, birth, health and celebration. If we submit to God in faith, we imitate Christ, and emerge dripping with the fragrance of the Lover of our souls. His very name becomes for us “perfume poured out” (Song of Songs 1:3).

Not everyone appreciates the way Christians smell. African friends of mine, upon smelling something bad, say “Phew!” through closed lips while snorting out their nose. Of those they despise, they say, “We don’t even want to smell them!” Some people will not want to “smell” us either if we belong to Christ. We are to them the smell of death, not the fragrance of life (2 Corinthians 2:16). But to God, we are “the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15).

Perfumes, in order to endure, need fixatives. They also need alcohol to carry the scent by evaporation. God has given us His Holy Spirit who helps us fix our eyes on Jesus and endure to the end. Anointed by the Spirit, we release His sweet fragrance.

Flowers are short-lived, fade and die, but a fine perfume outlasts them all and brings joy to those with whom it is shared. May our lives lovingly “spray” a pleasant mist on all we meet, for the glory of God and for His Kingdom.