On the Fragrance of Love
(Sir.35:12-14, 6-18; 2Tim.4:6-8, 16-18; Lk.18:9-14)
Nothing expresses love quite like a beautiful fragrance.
Napoleon Bonaparte and his Empress Josephine adored violets. Every anniversary he gave her a fragrant bouquet of violets, symbolising their passionate love. And on his deathbed, Napoleon’s locket held a picture of Josephine, a lock of her hair and dried violet petals.
Our noses are closely connected with our memories and feelings about people, places and things. That’s because the olfactory nerve that controls our sense of smell crosses the parts of the brain that manage memory and emotion.
This explains why memories and feelings often return to us when we smell familiar aromas, such as certain perfumes or foods.
But sweet fragrances aren’t just romantic. They also connect us with divine love.
We see this in the Bible’s Song of Songs, which is a love poem overflowing with the scent of fragrant perfumes, spices, flowers, fruit, incense and wine.
At one level, it describes a passionate love affair between a man and a woman. But at another, it’s an allegory of God’s extraordinary love for his people, and it tells us that God loves gorgeous scents even more than we do (Prov.27:9).
In Exodus 30, God instructs the priests of ancient Israel to keep burning aromatic incense on the golden altar in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. This golden altar represents our faithful, loving hearts, and the sweet-smelling smoke represents our heartfelt prayers, rising constantly up to heaven.
God gives Moses a recipe for this incense in Exodus 30:34-37. He must prepare it like a perfumer, by mixing equal parts of certain exotic spices with pure frankincense. For God likes his incense salted, pure and holy.
In a similar way, today’s readings give us a recipe for our own prayers. They must be honest and genuine. They must be borne of faith. They must express our love and gratitude to God, and they must come straight from our hearts.
To emphasise the right kind of prayer, Jesus today gives us his Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke’s Gospel.
These two men go into the Temple to pray. The Pharisee stands where everyone can see him. He looks up to heaven and loudly thanks God that he’s not like everyone else, and especially not like the Tax Collector. For he’s a virtuous man who fasts twice a week and he’s generous with his money.
The Tax Collector, however, stays at the back of the Temple. He’s ashamed of his life and he can’t lift up his eyes (Ez.9:6). He prays quietly, saying, ‘God, please be merciful to me, a sinner’.
Now, which prayer does God prefer? It’s the honest, humble one.
The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is that he sees no need for forgiveness. He has no sense of the distance he still has to go in his spiritual life, and his prayer simply lists all the good things he’s done.
While his good works are commendable, he doesn’t compare himself with the holiness of God that he and we are all called to imitate (Lev.19:2; Mt.5:48). Instead, he compares himself to the Tax Collector he despises.[i] The Pharisee’s prayer therefore isn’t a prayer at all.
The Tax Collector, however, is lowly and humble. He’s honest about his mistakes. He knows he needs help, so he prays, asking God for forgiveness.
That’s the kind of prayer Jesus likes. He wants us to be honest with him and ourselves. He wants us to love him and share our fears and burdens with him.
When we pray like this, from deep in our hearts, God always welcomes our words as sweet and precious gifts, rising like the smoke of sweet-smelling incense towards heaven. He remembers and treasures such gifts (Ps.141:2).
In the Book of Revelation (5:8; 8:3-5), John the Evangelist tells us that God likes our prayers so much that he collects them in golden bowls near his throne. And as our prayers waft upwards, so those golden bowls fill up until they tip over and pour out God’s power, love and mercy onto our world.
Some people think their prayers are of little value, but the truth is that God loves them. He listens and he responds. That’s what St Paul is saying in our second reading today (2Tim.4:6-8,16-18).
Our prayers are precious to God. They serve as a bridge between heaven and earth, and they move his heart.
St Therese of Lisieux, the ‘Little Flower’, understood this. She described prayer as a fragrant spiritual bouquet, given to God.
She also saw the Rosary as a shower of fragrant roses, left at the feet of Jesus and Mary.
So, today, let’s open up our hearts.
Let’s shower God with bouquets of fragrant
[i] S. Joseph Krempa. Captured Fire, Cycle C. St Paul’s Publications, NY. 2005:153.