Sunday, December 10, 2006


Baruch 5:1-9
Philippians 1:1-11
Luke 3:1-6
Psalm 126

The poem published in the first nine verses of Baruch 5 is a glorious imagining of the glory of God in relation to Israel. The line of this poem that has had a hold on my mind all day is this one:
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God's command.
More specifically, it's the two words, "fragrant tree" that keep echoing in my mind.

They transport me back to May in the back yard of my family home in Kellogg. May is when the lilacs bloom. Their fragrance sweetens the air. This was no small task in Kellogg when I was a boy. Often, the emissions from the Lead Smelter and Zinc Plant fouled the air. Often, the odor of rotten eggs prevailed. But, the lilacs' fragrance was stronger than the emissions. When the sun was out and the breeze was just right, the lilacs perfumed the whole back yard.

Later, when I lived in Spokane, lilacs perfumed the city.

This power of fragrance to suffuse a place is a common metaphor in the mystical tradition. The mystic equates the sweetness filling the air and the way it seems to wrap around us like a thick comforter with the presence of the Divine. It is the idea that we live in God or in the Holy Spirit or in the Divine. It is why we bring Easter lilies into our home to celebrate the Resurrection. The fragrance of new life fills our homes.

The ancient Persian poet Rumi loves this image. So does Walt Whitman. So do the Japanese haiku poets. Whether the fragrance is cherry blossom or lilacs or lilies, or whether it is the perfume of a sweet wine or of the back of a lover's neck, we can find a sensory means of understanding the sweet presence of the Divine by imagining it in terms of these fragrances.

In the poem from Baruch, then, the woods, like God, not only bring shade and comfort and relief to Israel, they also bring fragrance, like the incense of cedar, to Israel, reminding Israel that they live in the sweet presence of God.

The church has approximated this mystical reality in liturgical worship with incense. When incense is burned and its smoke permeates the sanctuary, cloaking worshipers in fragrance, it is as if the sweet unity of the Holy Spirit has taken physical form, and we are reminded of the way we are never absent from the Holy Spirit's healing and illuminating ways.

In earlier days, the incense also sweetened the air in churches where worshipper's body odor was strong and where the stench of sewage and other human enterprises fouled the air. The symbolism is clear. Even in the presence of that in life which is corrupt, the fragrance of the Divine is at work, reminding us that we are always in the company of the Holy. It is the sweetness, the perfume, the fragrance of pure love.

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