First Congregational Church
December 15, 2019
Third Sunday in Advent
“The Smells of The Season”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
As I looked for and contemplated the opening for this morning’s message, it became apparent that it must be Pun Day Sunday. Or Fun Day Sunday. Or at the very least, Groaner Joke Sunday. To that end,
Why does a giraffe have such a long neck? Because it has smelly feet. What did one eye say to the other? Between you and me something smells! Two parrots sitting on a perch. One says to the other, "Can you smell fish ?” What is the worst part of milking a cow?
The smell of the dairy air.
A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of the Moth Radio Podcast while I was getting ready for the day, and don’tcha know that there was a story that was perfect for this morning’s message. It was about the time after Nikesh Shukla’s mother died, and he’d come home to visit his father about a year after her death.
The home was neat and tidy, but it had a cold, rather indifferent feel to it. His mother’s purse was still on the landing, the last place she’d set it. To make a good story shorter, he ended up looking in the freezer to see what was there, and to his surprise, he found several frozen containers of foods that his mother had made before her death.
He pulled one of them out and started defrosting it in the microwave, and very quickly, his mother’s presence filled the house again. It was the smell of that favorite dish that “resurrected” her.
Here we are in the third week of Advent, coincidentally the third Sunday in December and third week of the new church year. Having tucked away a series for Advent on our five senses, in week one, we explored the idea of Advent and taste; appropriate for that day, since it was communion. So the bread and the cup were reminders of Christ’s love, as the various tastes of the season remind us of Christ’s birth. Last week, the focus was on the sense of touch, and the message poked around on the highly emotional aspects of how we feel things - from without as well as within, and the remarkable way that God touches our lives. This week, we come to the sense of smell - pleasant and otherwise. To that end, I tried to find a joke about someone who can't see, hear, taste, smell, or feel anything, and then I realized it was senseless.
The creator of this series, Mark Vande Zande, pastor of First Christian Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa, gave us a scripture passage that requires a little creative thinking, in terms of Christ’s birth and the idea of smell being a part of the lead up to the celebration of Christ’s birth.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Thank you, Rosemary. Unless I’ve missed something, the most direct reference we get to smell - in this passage is the mention of the manger - suggesting a barn, cave, stable or other place where animals would be kept. We might get an idea - from the part about everyone being in town - suggesting the smell of food or dust of the road or even other animal smells as they would have been brought in to become food for the census participants.
From other Gospels, we can get the smell of the shepherds, that tangy, stringent smell associated with those who spend time in the rangy pastures with their charges. And later on, when the Wise Men would come into the picture, there would perhaps be more exotic smells, and no doubt - camel smells - and maybe leather smells from saddles, if they had used them.
Aside from any exotic, Eastern smells, I think it would be safe to say that all the rest of the smells at that first Christmas were rather humble. The stable, with the au de straw, and perfume of manure, and essence of donkey, none of those are smells you find very often around Saks and 5th Avenue in New York. Or even Division and Grandview Parkway in Traverse City. Or Fifth and Forest in Frankfort, for that matter.
If one thinks about it, a lot of Jesus’ life had smells associated with it. Maybe he associated the smell of cut wood and wood shavings with his earthly father, Joseph. Perhaps he associated his disciples - at least some of them - with the smell of fish. And we shouldn’t forget the pointed reference to his friend, Lazarus, being dead three days by the time Jesus got to him - and the accompanying odor of decomp. His was not so much a life of the hoi-polloi, but one of humble humanity.
And in that stable, even within just a few hours of his birth, would be that baby smell. Being over two thousand years ago, there would be no lingering essence of Johnson and Johnson baby lotion. But even so, it would be that smell of something - someone - who had not been before. Of all the people in the world, babies are the most approachable, so it made sense that the shepherds and the Wise Men would want to see the infant. Not everyone loves babies. But those who do, really love babies and find them irresistible. And perhaps that is part of the draw to him at this time of year.
And yes, there would eventually be the diaper smell. We might mentally see an infant - the baby Jesus - diapered, but how many of us think about Jesus and a dirty dipe? How many of us envision Mary changing those diapers? After nearly 20 years working as a nursing assistant, one learns a lot about changing people pants, and what it means to do so without judgement. We are all so very human, and we all put pants on one leg at a time, no matter how much money we make, what color our skin, how many miles we have under the tires of our feet. It may not seem like it, but being with someone in the midst of some of our most intimate of basic of functions, regardless of our ability to say yes or no to such care, gives us great insight into what real love looks like, how real love behaves.
We could spend a month of Sundays listing smells - of all sorts. Fresh mown grass, burnt toast, new puppies or kittens, bleach, a fire, various buildings - including this one. As I mentioned two weeks ago, the sense of smell and that of taste are so intricately linked, that even thinking of various foods can set the saliva glands a swimming.
There is nothing like the smell of diesel that will take me back faster to my time in Denmark or riding in the truck with my dad when I was little. For others, it might well be the smell of fresh bread and a particular relative. And like touch, some smells can send us to dark and terrible places. Like taste, some of us lose the ability to smell, which can - at times - also put us in harm’s way.
The stable into which Jesus was born most likely didn’t have eucalyptus lingering about, but it certainly had the smell of life in the air. It most likely didn’t have cucumber and herb ice water available for guests like any descent spa would have. But it surely had buckets of water for cattle and animal skins of water for the humans. It wasn’t a romantic resort, but it was a stable of life, real and of earth and heaven.
We can smell the cinnamon infused pinecones that smack you - I mean greet you - at hobby stores. We can smell the woods and the earth, the clean, cold air of night and the aroma of a fireplace, and we are at once connected to the Christ child at his birth, because as much as those things were somewhere around his birth, they have not changed to this day. We can inhale the humility and approachability and the love of that day so long ago, when we think of those same things in our own day.
For those who haven’t had a chance to be here for a Candlelight Christmas Eve service, there are those other smells we sometimes associate with all this preparation in celebration of Christ’s birth. Wet wool in a warm room, the scent of mothballs that protect that coveted coat kept for special occasions, the various perfumes and colognes that people pour when they get gussied up. There was a time when the smell of men wearing Polo would sweep me away like in a cartoon. And just as it is for so many others, some perfumes and smells have turned away from being a friend, if you catch the drift.
As I wrote and thought about this message, maybe the best way we could “worship” in celebration of the baby that would change the world, would be to go to a working barn, to allow the dirt and liquids and images, as well as the smells, to permeate our minds, hearts and souls in ways we might not truly experience other ways. Except that we have been given the gift of imagination, so we’re off the hook for finding a barn over the next week.
A lot of people have been busy, and will continue to be busy getting ready for Christmas. And while all the preparations and thoughts and baking and decorating lend their part to the celebration, we can sometimes forget to take some moments, to even beg off of other responsibilities, to take a breath and breathe in Christ’s humanity, divinity, humility and royalty as Son of God and Son of Humans. Before we miss another breath, let us take one of those moments now as we pray.
Heavenly God of such earthly life, thank you for giving us all our senses, but especially that of smell. When we dismiss it, forgive us. When we focus too much on it, help us to find the balance of what is important. Mostly, God, thank you for the ability of smell to link us to the Christ child - born so long ago - in ways that often escape us. Help us, in this season of preparation, to breathe in all that our senses have to offer us, to see not just Christ’s birth, but the whole of his life, then, now and forever. And all God’s people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.