This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on December 18th, 2015.
The forest smell of pine suffuses holiday parties during the run-up to Christmas; sharp, pungent and invigorating. For a brief moment, you might as well be standing in Muir Woods, or on a ski slope in Tahoe. The barista at Starbucks spikes my morning coffee with peppermint, and that crisp smell ebbs too, from candy-canes dangling in shops and in my parish office. I had a quaff of egg-nog at an event one evening last week, and the nutmeg dust that topped the nog was sheer olfactory delight. Seasonal smells in bright winter make December a happy month as we go about work-a-day commitments, venture crowds in search of gifts, and gather with convivial friends.
The decorations and festal cheer of Christmas are inspired by a particular event; the arrival in history of a child Christians say was the unique expression of divinity unfolding in a particular human life. That conviction led to the transformation of how people conceived of their relationship to God and one another, generating Western civilization with its richly textured intellectual foundation. It might be said that God scented human history in this Child Jesus.
I lived for a couple of years on the Cukurova Plain in Turkey not far from St. Paul’s hometown of Tarsus. My first year, I was startled to see large herds of sheep and, mixed among them, a fair number of two-headed lambs bounding through the fields. Being a city boy, I sought explanation for all these apparently mutant animals. Turkish friends explained that some of the ewes and some of the lambs die in the birthing process each year, and motherless lambs had to be matched to adoptive ewes. As ewes will only nurse a lamb that bears its scent, orphaned lambs are covered in the pelt of those that did not survive. As they nurse from their adoptive mother, the lambs take on her scent. In a few days the pelts can be removed. Rural wisdom, not mutant animals, was what I saw in those pastures.
Many stories and traditions have grown up around the core idea of Christmas…that the One who hurled the universe dwells also among us, and with us, and expresses the divine life through us. This awareness kindled in the unlikely peasant Jesus born two millennia ago in backwater Bethlehem and has ever since scented the world and turned it upside down.
Turks often came to Christmas Eve services where I celebrated the Festal Eucharist of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Some were curious, some were secret Christians, and some just wanted to pay respect and join the fun. All of us had caught the scent of God with us and up to much more than we might ask or understand or imagine. Any Church would welcome you to join the celebration this Christmastide, to catch a scent better than peppermint or pine; the scent of hope for a world in need of a bit of comfort and joy.