You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. — Psalm 23:5
To the freed slaves, God smelled like cinnamon, cassia, olive oil, and myrrh — sweet and earthy, nutty and warm. When Moses met God on Mount Sinai, God sent him back with a recipe for oil. This oil would anoint the temple, the altar, the religious furnishings, even the priests. No one else was to use that same perfume, God said.
Think of it as holy to Me. — Exodus 30:22-38
We know now what the Creator knew then: that the olfactory nerve is connected to the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with memory and emotion, which is why the fragrance of a particular flower or the scent of a certain soap can suddenly flood a body with a memory, stunning in its visceral clarity. God wanted His people to know His scent. He wanted them to remember.
And so the pages of Scripture positively drip with oil.
Nearly two hundred references speak of oil to light lamps, oil to soothe dry skin, oil to honor guests, oil to mark a sacred place, oil to solemnize a commitment, oil to entice, oil to comfort, oil to consecrate, oil to heal, oil to anoint priests, prophets, and kings, oil to prepare a body for burial.
To the ancient Israelites, prayer smelled like frankincense — balsamic, resinous, piney — said to be especially sweet to God’s senses and thus continuously burned in the temple. Cleansing smelled like fresh hyssop, sex like cinnamon, saffron, and nard.
Royalty smelled like myrrh — warm, pungent, and woody — an oil also used in burial and to celebrate weddings. Wealth smelled like thick, aromatic spikenard, temple sacrifice like hyssop and cedarwood. For anointing, the prophets employed olive oil, perhaps with a touch of sweet cassia. To be anointed with oil was to be chosen, consecrated, and commissioned for a holy task. Messiah, or Christ, means “Anointed One.”
“The Spirit of the Lord is on Me,” the Messiah said, “ because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” — Luke 4:18
“You have an anointing from the Holy One,” said the apostle John to his fellow Christians. “We are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved,” said the apostle Paul.
The ancients knew, too, the healing properties of oils, which were applied to wounds and ingested as medicine.
When James instructs the early church to anoint the sick with oil and to lay their hands on the sick and pray, the prescription is both practical and spiritually significant. The journey through suffering is a fraught and holy commission, one the Messiah himself knew well. Healing may come through medicine, through prayer, through presence and scent and calming touch, or through the consecrating of the journey as holy, dignified, and not without purpose or grace. The Catholic Church defines the anointing of the sick as “the conferral of a special grace on the Christian experiencing the difficulties inherent in the condition of grave illness or old age.” Even in death, the sick are anointed, reminded that the seal of the Holy Spirit is more permanent than the grave.
There is nothing magic about oil. It is merely a carrier — of memory, of healing, of grace. We anoint not to cure, but to heal.
We anoint to soothe, to dignify, and even in our suffering, to remember the scent of God.
Watch the Searching for Sunday video
Excerpted with permission from Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans, copyright Thomas Nelson, 2015.
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For each of us, there are certain scents that immediately trigger memories. With one waft of Old Spice I’m a little girl wrapped in my Papa McClure’s bear hug. Johnson’s Baby Wash can bring me to tears thinking of years of sweet memories bathing five chubby little bodies. Lemon verbena literally hurts my heart because it reminds me of a very long and painful relationship. But, among many other precious smells, it’s the scent of the ocean that is associated with my Jesus because He’s met me there profoundly so many times. What about you? Are there scents that you immediately associate with God? Why? Come join the conversation on our blog! We’d love to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, FaithGateway Women