December 25, 2015

Christmas Day, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Sisters and brothers in Christ, Merry Christmas, and God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.

When I lived in Chicago, downtown street-vendors sold chestnuts roasting on an open fire at Christmas time. In Istanbul, they don’t even wait for Christmas, but sell roasted chestnuts even in the middle of summer. It’s a delightful reminder of a quaint, Midwestern Christmas, in the middle of a crowded global metropolis — really a bizarre, and wonderfully out-of-context smell.

What does Christmas smell like to you? Cranberries and pinecones? Chocolate, eggnog, peppermint, cardamom, coffee? Evergreens and scented candles? Depending on your tradition, Stollen or lutefisk? Maybe a little later for you today, Christmas will smell like roast turkey or ham a little later today. Or if you’re lucky, Christmas will smell like a little child, nestled close and warm your arms.

They say smells trigger more memories and connections with our emotions than any of our other senses. That’s why the aroma of a certain cookie baking can fill us with memories of Christmases long, long ago. Some of the strongest scent triggers for me are the smell of my grandmother’s basement in her home on Long Island, a mix of moist, salty air and clean laundry; or the blend of Murphy’s oil soap and beeswax which brings back the scent of my childhood church.

For the past four weeks, many of us have been reflecting on what we notice with each of our senses. One week of Advent we reflected on things we heard, the next week on things we saw, then smelled, and finally things we touched.

The responses we shared when we focused on the sense of smell were especially fascinating to me. This year, many of us couldn’t help but notice the smell of freshly mown grass and mud, late October scents in the middle of this winter’s failure to arrive. It felt so odd to be sniffing Christmas cookies baking in the oven, while our kitchen windows were cracked open on those 55 degree afternoons. As we prepared for Christmas, we smelled the musty aroma of decorations pulled from storage, the dusty fumes from the vacuum cleaner, and yes, the delightful aroma of ginger and cinnamon from the kitchen.

But my favorite post came from Thor Carlson who started thinking about the real smells of Christmas early in the season. Thor wrote:

It dawned on me this past weekend as holiday travel took us through rural Minnesota and past a field freshly spread with the ghost of cattle feed past. Whoa, it smelled bad. But nothing much different than those last few hours of the Advent of our Lord. Two weary travelers arrived in Bethlehem probably really needing a shower. They were lodging in a barn. Even the shepherds, living a life of perpetual camping, were probably wondering “Is that me?” before being interrupted by angels.

The manger probably didn’t smell that great. In fact, that’s precisely the radical gift of the Christmas gospel. The word becomes flesh. The power, the logos, the core message of the God of all the universe, becomes part of nature. Heaven comes to earth, smells and all.

It was considered heresy in its day – and it generally seems like it now, too. God is too holy for us to touch. God is too beyond us to fathom. God is so remote and over-powerful, completely Other than our reality. For this God, this all holy, all majestic, all wonderful Word to become flesh is inconceivable. God is uniquely sacred and beautiful, and we…? Well, we stink.

That’s the wonder of the Incarnation – the word made flesh. Christmas makes the audacious, amazing claim that the God who is above and beyond us, the God who willed us, and who created us with just a word, this God, this very Word, has become one of us, lives among us, full of grace and truth. And if God is flesh, then God smells like flesh.

The stable into which our Savior was born undoubtedly housed sheep and oxen amid bales of straw full of mud and manure. It was visited by shepherds who lived with animals in fields. And at least that night, it held a poor couple who had been on the trail for days, and their newborn child, wrapped in soggy rags and clinging to life.

Can you smell it? Maybe it’s not that easy a smell for us to imagine. I grew up in the suburbs, and haven’t actually spent much time on farms. The closest I’ve been to a smelly barn in the last decade is my annual visit to the State Fair, and that’s not a smell that’s too easy to consider this early in the day.

But we don’t have to know what a stable smells like to know the odor of daily life. Each morning I rise to the delightful aroma of coffee reminding me of my goals and intentions for the day ahead. But I quickly become distracted and indifferent. I start to notice the too familiar scent of yesterday’s lethargy and dissatisfaction. I catch a whiff of my own embarrassment of tasks left undone, of frustration with my lack of change, my lack of courage, and the foul doubts of whether any of my efforts make a difference anyway.

I try to shower away the smells of past failures, but before I dry off, there are new smells around me. I sniff the reports of friends with new illnesses, new problems in their lives. I sense the descriptions of a world in turmoil, of violence and injustice, of a world in turmoil, of thousands of refugees fleeing danger and oppression and nations putting up walls to keep them away. I can only imagine how impossible that must smell.

When I leave the house I inhale smog and diesel fuel, reminding me of my wasteful use of the earth’s resources. I pick up medicinal loneliness in retirement homes, and disinfected longing from hospital wards. Those overly pungent perfume aisles in fancy stores fail to mask the overindulgence of a society gone crazy in consuming.

Does our Savior smell it too? Does our God-in-human-form know our disenchanting smell of boredom and shame, of worry and despair, of desire meeting sloth and fear and hope and fatigue? “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.”

In ancient times, God was known for having a long nose. Seriously. Several Hebrew words for emotions are associated with the nose of God. When God is angry, the original phrase says that God’s nostrils are flared. The aroma of prayers that accompanied burnt offerings is said to have pleased God, soothing God’s heart. That’s where the tradition of burning incense in worship originates. And the word we sometimes translate as “long suffering,” or “slow to anger,” is literally, “long-nosed.” Apparently, the divine nose is so long, it takes a long time for God to ever become angry.

This is the good news of Christmas. God is born for us, even though the world smells stale and spent. In fact, God comes to us precisely when things get most putrid in our lives, when our broken hearts have turned rancid and sour. In the tender, patience of a God who is slow to anger, but abounding in steadfast love, the Word is born, smelling of grace and truth. The old carol sings of the rose e’er blooming, whose fragrance tender perfumes this very world with sweetness everywhere.

In her provocative and fascinating book, “Wearing God, ” about lesser known metaphors for God, Lauren Winner includes a chapter on the sense of smell, the ways God smells us, and the ways we catch the scent of God. Winner reminds us of Jesus’ promise to be in the least of those around us. She guesses that the stench of humanity we avoid in the homeless shelter is the smell of an incarnate God. The reek of an overly crowded prison, or of the line of people at the food shelf, is the aroma of a God who has promised that whenever we visit the least of these his brothers and sisters, we meet him.

But there is another side of this promise, too. If God is born into the world, then God is redeeming the smell of our lives. Our long-suffering, compassionate God comes to sweeten our story. The Word comes to God’s own, to sanctify our daily smell, and to welcome us, just as we are, into the hope of a new day. The word becomes flesh, full of grace and truth. God knows exactly how we smell, and comes to restore this world into the sweet-smelling garden of love and care we were meant to inhabit.

Thor Carlson concludes his AdventSense post,

Today, our lives can be laden with the stench of disappointment, imperfection, worry and loss. But we know if we’re patient, we’ll soon breathe deeply the fresh air of love, grace and forgiveness.

That’s what Christmas finally smells like. It smells like the bouquet of wine and yeasty bread, like the smoke of candles carrying our hopes and prayers to heaven, like the scent of a warm embrace, a compassionate smile, or a kind word refreshing our heart. It smells like you and me.

Heaven comes to earth, and we smell its beauty, when we rejoice with a friend, when we catch a whiff of justice restored, or hope renewed, or health returned, when the prodigal returns home, when a loved one forgives us.

The Rose of Heaven blooms in our midst when we inhale a willingness to try again, to reach out, to share our story, to let our light shine, to testify to the light that refuses to let the darkness overcome it, to claim our inheritance as the children of God.

This is finally what Christmas smells like, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the promise of baptism, and the chance to look for the resurrection of our bodies, and the life of the world to come.

As full of grace and truth as the scent of a newborn child, nestled in the arms of a loved one, Christ is born, perfuming the world and all of us, with love everlasting.

Thanks be to God. Amen

Thanks to Dan Maurer for sharing this with us:
Thor Carlson, used by permission.
Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, by Lauren Winner, Harper Collins,
ibid Thor Carlson, used by permission.