Lessons from Frankincense: the Science-Defying Perfume

As odd as it is, I’m sure you have heard of frankincense at least once before. Probably in a brief reference to one of the gifts that the three wise men brought to baby Jesus over 2,000 years ago. Okay, so what does a 2,000-year-old gift have to do with life today? A lot more than you might think. Its obscure story is worth reading.

First off, what is frankincense, really? The textbook definition is an aromatic gum resin obtained from an African tree (Boswellia sacra, family Burseraceae) and burned as incense. Wikipedia makes these interesting observations:

Boswellia Sacra trees are considered unusual for their ability to grow in environments so unforgiving that they sometimes grow directly out of solid rock. The means of initial attachment to the stone is not known but is accomplished by a bulbous disk-like swelling of the trunk. This disk-like growth at the base of the tree prevents it from being torn away from the rock during the violent storms that frequent the region they grow in… The tears from these hardy survivors are considered superior for their more fragrant aroma.”

boswellia tree1

Another very critical fact to understand is the manner through which the frankincense is harvested. It is an excruciating process where the Boswellia tree bark is slashed, also called striping. This allows the oozing resins to bleed out and harden. Once solidified on the exterior of the tree, the resins are called tears.

Up to this point, I’m depressed. We have a remarkably resilient tree that is slashed and then actually bleeds tears. What cruelty! If the story ends here, it’s not worth the screen real estate to read it. BUT… it doesn’t end here.

The beauty of frankincense is the absolutely pure, revitalizing perfume that it exudes. In addition to the delight this aroma brings to our senses, it is also known for its medicinal uses for arthritis, digestion, promoting healthy skin, healing wounds, and purifying the atmosphere from germs.

Frankincense is known for its purity. The name comes from the old French “franc encens” meaning pure incense. This surprises me. How can something so distressed and even abused in its environment, growth, and ultimately harvest, be so pure and lovely?

Overcoming the odds is a pathetic understatement in this context. This perfume is an absolute miracle, beginning with its origin. “The means of initial attachment to the stone is not known…” It can’t be explain. It just happens. And then once the Boswellia tree is impossibly affixed to the stone, it remains unmoved during the inevitable, ferocious weather. The climax is when the bark is struck, creating resin tears that emit a tremendous aromatic therapy that is pure and refreshing. This is an epic phenomenon. Its science-defying story is simultaneously tragic and inspiring. And it reminds me of life- my life in Christ.

The world cannot explain or comprehend how Christ is in me and I am in Christ. I’m not sure that I can even explain it! But it is true nonetheless. “In an environment so unforgiving,” Christ came and gave me life. He sacrificed His pure life so I could be redeemed to become “the sweet fragrance of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 2:15)

Hurts, pains, and tragedy are all inevitable. The violent storms of life will come, daring to remove us from the solid Rock. Honestly, there are times that I think the storm might win, that life [as I know it] is over. Doubt sets in and despair knocks at the door. The sorrow is too much, the pain too deep, the wounds too fresh. But my life is affixed to Jesus Christ as the Boswellia tree is to the rock. I am unmovable in Christ. This is not because I’m holding on so tightly or because I have the capacity myself to withstand the storm. It is Christ in me. He is always sufficient. He holds me secure. The psalmist David knew firsthand about tragedy and he recounts, “[God] only is my Rock and my Salvation; He is my Defense and my Fortress, I shall not be moved. With God rests my salvation and my glory; He is my Rock of unyielding strength and impenetrable hardness, and my refuge is in God!” (Psalm 62:6,7 AMP)

Amid the storms comes the harvest, another painful experience. The temporarily cruel events that create gashes in our hearts reveal an aromatic resin for the world to inhale. Is it pleasant? Is it pure delight? Is it the fragrance of Christ? I love the passage in 2 Corinthians 2 when Paul says, “…thanks be to God who in Christ always leads us in triumph as trophies of Christ’s victory and through us spreads and makes evident the fragrance of the knowledge of God everywhere, for we are the sweet fragrance of Christ unto God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing…” (vv. 14,15 AMP)

The beauty of frankincense is its nature to exude a sweet perfume. That’s what it does. In a similar manner, it is Christ’s nature to permeate not only my life as His child, but also every life that crosses my path, with His delightful, awe-inspiring essence. It is not for me to produce Christ-likeness, but for me to rest and abide in Jesus Christ Himself, to rely wholly on Him. He is the only One who can give and sustain life. It is His nature.

As you celebrate Christmas this year, reflect on the wonder of Jesus coming to our world, an environment so unforgiving, and sacrificing His very life so that we might live in Him and exude the fragrance of Christ. Merry Christmas!

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