Notes from the sermon by Jon Dorsett 20th January 2019 – Frankincense
Past. Present. Future.
This morning I want to reflect on how we engage with the Past. Present. And Future.
As part of a season of Epiphany Worship services I was given the topic from the Gifts of the Magi of Frankincense as the theme for this sermon, but I have to admit, my mind wondered somewhat in thinking about this, so we’re going to go on a bit of a journey through neuroscience, earthquakes, hymns, climate change, global inequality, power, purpose and calling. I do promise to bring it back to the Gifts of the Magi at some point before I finish. But first I have a question for you…
What is your earliest memory?
Just take a moment to reach your mind back (some might have to reach further back than others).
What is the earliest memory you can recall?
And what is it that accesses that memory for you? Is it a specific feeling? A specific object? A person? A sound? A movement?
For me it is a smell. The smell of Johnsons baby lotion and a memory of Terry’s nappies and a nappy changing mat in front of a Calor gas heater in my parents’ house. I guess I must have been a toddler, and the memories are very much linked to feelings and textures, but even now the smell of Johnsons baby lotion brings that memory flooding vividly back. And it’s the same with other smells. Cut-grass takes me straight back to infant school and constructing floorplans of houses on the freshly cut playing field. Ozone, an old electric train set I used to play with. Moth balls, the vestry of the freezing unheated village church where I was an altar boy.
Smells are possibly the most powerful sense we have to unlock forgotten or early memories. Neuroscientists attribute this to a number of factors.
Firstly smell is the oldest of the senses we have. Before the ability to detect light, before the ability to feel pressure, before the ability to recognise sound, living organisms developed the ability to detect chemicals in their surroundings and be able to respond to them. Simple bacteria today can detect and respond to multiple chemicals in their surroundings.
Our sight relies on 4 different types of receptor cells to convert light into electrochemical signals to our brains. Our touch likewise relies on a least 4 different types of receptors for heat, cold, pressure and pain. Our sense of smell however is linked to over 1000 different receptor types.
Information from our eyes, ears and tactile senses are sent to a relay station in our brain called the Thalamus before being sent to other parts of the brain for processing. With smells however, information is processed directly by the olfactory bulb which starts in the nose and runs along the base of the brain. The olfactory bulb is directly adjacent and connected to two parts of the brain that are associated with emotion and memory, the amygdala (a mig da la) and the hippocampus. It is perhaps because of this direct connection that the sense of smell is so successful at evoking memories and emotions.
It is also perhaps because of this direct link between smell and deep memories and feelings that incense has been used for millennia in religious ritual and practice. By creating the association between distinct and strong smells and stories and practices that have sustained communities and individuals, there becomes an easy access route to evoking the place in which we find belonging, meaning and purpose.
Conscious memory can be fickle. How often have you recalled the same events very differently to your partner, or close friends? Deep memories however work within us at a different level. I have a friend who works with people living with dementia, and she describes the joy of seeing people come alive and joining in when they hear a hymn from their childhood. They may struggle to remember much else, but those memories from childhood come alive when their subconscious is sparked.
Being able to access the stories that sustain us, can also be life-saving in difficult times. I remember hearing about a woman stuck under rubble for over a week following the 2003 Bam earthquake in Iran, who said the only reason she survived was because she had memorised the Quran and was able to recite it in full to herself while trapped.
Frankincense, I want to argue, as a gift of the Magi, is a gift and reminder of the importance of memory; access to the collective memories embodied in liturgy and ritual and evoked by our sense of smell. Memories that are conscious, perhaps of scripture, and unconscious feelings associated with the sense of belonging and meaning that comes from ritual and liturgy too. While this may not be the case for us today, either as none High Church (bells and smells) Christians, or in the wider world where ritual and shared liturgy no longer persist, perhaps smells still help us tap into our collective unconscious – that part of consciousness that is inherited and shared not only among humans but among all living things. A part of our brain that knows on a deep level that we are all connected, that we are part of a living system and not divorced from and above the rest of creation.
Still I digress slightly. Frankincense, in my schema, is memory, is the past, is a reminder to hold onto our values and stories of who we are, stories that remind us of our relationship with our self, with each other, with creation, and with God.
Gold I want to argue, is the gift of now. The gift of the present. Gold is near universally an item of worth, a valuable commodity used to trade for other goods and services. Gold equates to agency, to power, to the ability to make happen. Gold is representative of the ability to act in the here and now, to have agency in the present. What we choose to do with that agency is a decision we each have to make. We can use it to our own personal gain, or we can use it in community to support one another, and to act for the common good. As Mary Oliver, who died this week, said ‘What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?’ Gold as a gift of the Magi then, is a reminder of Agency, of the ability to act in the present.
And so Myrrh. In my schema, Myrrh is symbolic of the future. Myrrh was among other things used as an anointing oil, it is listed as an ingredient in the holy anointing oil for the anointing of the tabernacle, of high priests and kings. To anoint is to set apart, to signify specific purpose. It is to send out on a calling. It is to collectively recognise a gift, a vocation, a path and a purpose. Myrrh then as a gift of the Magi, is a sending out into the future, a recognition of calling or purpose.
I am well aware that this might be stretching the traditional understandings of the gifts from the wise men of the east. More often they are presented as regal gifts, given to kings across the middle east to recognise their right to rule. Or they are seen as symbols of deity (the frankincense), earthly kingship (the gold), and death (Myrrh). I however, want to attempt to reach for something deeper and further in their meaning and relevance to each and every one of us.
Jesus’s kingship is not presented as a kingship analogous to the kings of nations and of empires, instead where the word king is used within scripture in relation to Jesus, it is used to subvert our understanding of kingship. This is not about a hierarchical rule, passed down through a patriarchal line, implemented by force, and held in place by fear. This is the cosmic Christ – that aspect of God which pervades all of creation, the Christ who according the letter to the Ephesians “fills the universe in all its parts” (1:23). Matthew’s story of the Magi honouring Jesus, was marking the recognition of a paradigm shift in human consciousness, a departure from the imperial mindset that had pervaded much of humankind since the fall and the development of consciousness, and instead towards a spirit filled awareness of the connectedness of all things, and our human place within that. Jesus as the Christchild is the marker of this, but it is a consciousness we all have access to, and in which we all play a part. It is the coming kingdom that is at hand, it is the kingdom within you. It is the yet and yet not yet.
The gifts of the magi, if we take them as reminders and pointers to past, present and future, are gifts/ reminders to all of human-kind. Frankincense to access the past, the memory of who we really are. Gold to be in the present, aware and engaged with the frightening amount of agency that we have. And Myrrh to be mindful of the future, and find our purpose and calling.
We are here and now. We look to the future. And we draw on the wisdom of our past.
The wisdom of our past is contained not only in our own individual learning, not only in our cloud of witnesses and radical forebears, not only in the great wisdom of our scriptures, but also in the deep knowledge of being part of a living system, part of the cosmic Christ, a knowledge buried deep in our collective consciousness.
The here and now we are part of is a time of unprecedented challenges. And we look to a future of massive uncertainty.
Man-made climate change; unparalleled global inequality and the economic systems that give rise to it; the rise of violent extremism, polarisation and the inability to engage with the other; the destructive power of our military-industrial complex and the global conflicts that ensue; the ecological impact of our consumeristic culture and increasing materialism. These are to name just a few.
To even to begin to approach these issues, we need to access a new mindset. Even our shared stories, our scriptures, have been tinged by imperial colonial readings, imbued with a mechanistic mindset and reduction to dualistic thinking.
We need to rediscover the roots of our collective memories. We need to follow our noses to the sources of our collective wisdom. For those of us with a scriptural tradition, we need to re-read those memories through the light of the memories of our collective unconscious. The shared memories that we are all part of a living system, an eco-system of life, death and rebirth.
We then need to rediscover, re-Cognise and rebuild our sense of agency. We need to gift each other with gold. To build our ability to act together, in common and in complexity. The answers we need to the challenges of now will not come from ‘them’ (from a ruling elite or a hierarchical system of command and obey). The issues are too complex for one person, one organisation, one political party, or one nation to solve. We have to use our agency together to create the changes our planet and societies need.
And we need to discover and recognise the callings we each have, the purpose we are made for. Our purpose is not in a meaningless 9-5 office job we hate, sitting home watching Netflix every evening, going shopping every weekend, being slave and consumer, (though I am quite partial to an evening on Netflix).
Our purpose is in loving each other, caring for creation, discovering ourselves, connecting to the transcendent, and being in community. Our callings, our anointings are in those veins too, to bring each other and ourselves back into relationship with our deep self, with the other, with creation, and with God.
So, the gifts of the Magi are for each and every one of us…
The smell of Frankincense to unlock our memories and remind us of who we are.
The value of Gold to give us agency to transform things in the here and now.
The anointing of Myrrh, to help us look to the future with purpose and calling.
The Epiphany of the Magi was the realisation and recognition of the infant Jesus as incarnation of the transcendent, and marker of a shift in human consciousness. As we journey through this season of Epiphany worship services, perhaps we will find deeper revelations of the cosmic Christ as we delve into our shared memories of scripture, and perhaps those revelations can spur us on in our callings and purpose to be agents of transformation for the kingdom of God in the here and now.