Advent Part V: Christmas Eve/Christmas


Advent Part V: Seeking the Holy Through Our Sense of Smell

December 24-25, 2021

from Luke 2:1–20. Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn…. When the angels had left the shepherds and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

At last, we arrive at Christmas, and the final of Aristotle’s five senses: smell. When I think of smell in conjunction with Luke’s telling of the Christmas story, I think of the Virginia State Fair held every fall on the outskirts of my hometown. There were many smells there, including mouth-watering ones from food vendors—savory fried onions and green peppers at one stall, enticing cotton candy and funnel cakes at others—as well as the comforting scent of sawdust and woodchips spread over the fairgrounds themselves. My favorite, though, has always been the scent of the livestock exhibition building. It’s a barn smell, complex and hard to describe. Mixed in with the feral and musky smells of the animals are the sweet scent of fresh hay and the earthy odors of manure, wood, dirt, canvas, and leather. The resulting fragrance is one I’ve never known to be included at church Christmas pageants. That is a shame, I think, for barn smells are probably the first odors that wafted into the tiny nostrils of the new-born babe at Bethlehem when he was swaddled and laid to sleep in a manger. Other odors he encountered in his first weeks of life include the aromatic ones of frankincense (“woodsy, sweet and warm”) and myrrh (“a little like licorice”), each one earthy-smelling and resinous because of being derived from tree sap. But as of Christmas Day, the Magi haven’t yet arrived, and so those exotic fragrances mentioned in Matthew’s account of the birth are not yet on the scene. Some folks find smell to be the most evocative of our five senses. Certainly, smells can transport me through both time and space. When I smell pine tags heated by the summer sun, for a fleeting moment I am with my grandmother nearly seven decades ago on the porch of a cabin in the dunes of Seashore State Park. If I catch a whiff of Scotch whiskey, it is the summer of 1967, and I am in Oxford, England, studying Elizabethan history and drama. I love the briny smell of the ocean, the impossible sweetness of spring gardenia blossoms, the surprise fragrance of winter honeysuckle with its inconspicuous blossoms that release a fragrance far out of proportion to their size. At this time of year, I love the smell of fresh greens, and I often burn candles scented with balsam and fir. I believe that each one of these scents, along with many others, could make for interesting reflections about God and about where and how the Holy has appeared in my life. What about you? Do you have similar experiences with fragrances? Which ones evoke strong memories? Which ones appeal to you now? How might a fragrance of this season speak to you regarding how the Holy is being born in you this day, this moment? Again, if you are a journal keeper, make a list of some of the seasonal smells you love. Pick a favorite and write about how it speaks to you of God’s coming to dwell in you. Merry Christmas.


"While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks"

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