What does Christmas smell like?
[The people shout out answers: Gingerbread – Peppermint – Baked ham – evergreen sprigs – Chestnuts roasting on an open fire – Stollen in the oven – Egg nog.]
Smell is the strongest of our senses, the carrier of memories. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously. Smell is close to the heart.
I carry strong smell memories from the Darke County Fair. Darke County is in southern Ohio, where I grew up, and it was, and still is, a truly great county fair. Climbing out of the way back of the station wagon in 1972, I could smell the corn dogs. Walking through the concessions area brought the scent of candy apple and chili dogs. From there we went into the large halls where the 4-H food contests were being judged: blueberry pies, homemade pickles, and watermelon pickle (my favorite!), all pungent and mouth-watering. It was an olfactory heaven, row after row. And then the door opened and we were in the Cow palace – Bam! A very different smell-scape!
Cows. Pigs. Chickens. Sheep. Those animals were the heart of the fair. They were the lifeblood of the community. They were the wealth of the community. And they smelled….like animals. As my high school English teacher used to say, “Smell that country air, but don’t step in it!”
We are here tonight drawn by the promise of a reason to hope. We, who have clawed our way to the finish line of this crazy, disheartening, sometimes horrendous year, come hungry for good news. Give us a break, world. Where is our hope?
Our hope is in a manger. Have you ever smelled a manger? A real manger, used by real animals? It doesn’t smell like your grandmother’s snickerdoodles baking.
Here is the good news: God got down into the muck with us. God arrived smelling not of the fine perfumed oils used to anoint a king but of hay and sheep’s sweat and dusty lambswool and slobbery trough water.
This baby in the trough is the maker of all that is. This is Being itself. This pungent scene in a stable or (more likely) a cave, with a baby in a manger — this is our spiritual galactic headquarters. And, people of the Church of the Good Shepherd, this God is our shepherd. The shepherd is asleep in the manger. The sheep know the shepherd because the shepherd smells like the sheep (Phillip Carr-Jones).
This is not a dispassionate God, carrying Purell in his satchel to recover from his encounters with the rabble, hiding Glade air fresheners behind the hay bales. This is not a God in judgment of those who are messy in heart, mind, or body. This shepherd loved us so much that he came among us – you and me, and all the sheep who sometimes do our best, and sometimes do our worst, sometimes touch the sky with our beauty and sometimes deny or degrade our own beauty and that of others.
This shepherd knows that sheep get lost, and fearful and that fear makes us sweat and stumble and cry. God came to reveal the blessedness of all of creation, not just the shiny bits. God came to redeem all of us, not just the shiny bits of us.
And when we are a mess, when our intentions or impacts stink, when we’re not sure which way is up and what’s for dinner tonight, and which form to send to which insurance agency for reimbursement, and whether to scream into a pillow or call our senator or march on Washington, when we are like a baby crying in a manger, we are imitating God. Imitatio christi.
This is a God who by his manner of incarnation puts to the lie any call to purity – racial, ethnic, or doctrinal. Within the space of his first year, our baby Jesus/God incarnate has blessed his unwed mother Mary, animals, shepherds, wise men from Persia, the elderly (Simeon and Anna). He is working the edges, uniting into one story – one people – those judged unclean or unworthy by the powers that be.
This narrative will continue throughout Jesus’s story, as he touches lepers, eats with tax collectors, crosses borders and seas to teach and heal, honors women and children and criminals and those with mental illness time and again. Any attempt to align the story of Jesus with efforts to discriminate or denigrate any of God’s beloved children makes no sense at all if we start in the manger.
I have not been in a Cow Palace in a long time. But I have opened many doors and been knocked down by the stench of what I found there. At the age of 51, I have cried like a newborn baby at moments when I felt vulnerable or overpowered by forces I could not understand.
I kneel at the manger in thanksgiving for this scandalous, smelly baby, because here God suffered, and “only a suffering God can help,” (Debie Thomas). Here in the manger, God revealed that stronger than any evil is the power of love. Higher than any wall we can build is the promise of freedom for all that we have in Christ. More aromatic than any pumpkin spice latte is the earthy, odoriferous manger where our God lay crying.
This story continues – the baby grows up. And I truly hope you come back to hear the rest of it, because it’s just as gob-smackingly amazing as the Christmas part. And I truly hope you come back here to hear it, alongside the amazing people of this humble, gentle, beautiful little congregation, who through their deep commitment to live into this story make me a better person and a more honest Christian. In a year when it was tempting to bury themselves under the covers or drown their sorrows binge-watching netflix, these people sent relief to hurricane victims in Haiti, hosted an interfaith prayer vigil on the eve of the election, donated innumerable canned goods to the Watertown Food Pantry, grew tomatoes and kale for hungry neighbors, worked to reduce our carbon footprint, shared their faith journeys with one another, increased their pledges for the mission we share here, and upheld one another in prayer.
I am so thankful to be on this holy journey with you here. And I wish you a blessed Christmas season.