Luke 2: 1 – 7; Jill A. Kirchner- Rose, MDIV, DMIN
I would like for you to bring your bulletin up to your nose, and breathe in deeply. What do you smell? It is the smell of peppermint. Yes, this morning we have peppermint-scented bulletins. Peppermint is a favorite scent of the holidays – we put peppermint in lots of our food — peppermint pies, peppermint candies, peppermint tea. Aromatherapists tell us that there are many benefits to peppermint. This morning we lit the candle of peace – and peppermint is one of the best allies of peace – reducing stress and anxiety. The menthol present in peppermint is a muscle relaxant. For those who struggle with insomnia, it is advised that we drink peppermint tea for a peaceful night sleep. If you fall asleep today in the sermon, I will blame it on the peppermint-scented bulletins and not the preacher. By the way, peppermint tea also aids with weight loss, improves digestion, boosts the immune system, and fights bad breath. Aaaahhh…the wonders of peppermint.
We continue with our Advent sermon series, “The Senses of Christmas.” The sense that we are exploring today is the sense of smell. Ho, ho, ho…it’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas. The smell, the scent, the aroma of Christmas is everywhere. The fresh pine scent of a Christmas tree, fresh-baked sugar cookies, eggnog, gingerbread, chestnuts roasting over an open fire, clove-studded oranges, apple cider simmering on the stove, hot chocolate steaming in a mug. So many smells… and in fact, our nose can smell at least 1 trillion different scents. Yes, this lump of cartilage in the middle of our face is absolutely amazing. Moreover, our nose links smells to memory. Why? Because the olfactory bulb is located right next to the part of the brain that handles memory storage. Smells can evoke powerful, powerful memories. Even though my mother died over 20 years ago, I smell the facial soap that she used and immediately I am transported back in time…the tears well up in my eyes and I can feel her right there by my side. All because of a smell.
We often associate the scent of Christmas with warmth and holiday cheer; yet, those smells are a far cry from the first Christmas. What did that first Christmas smell like? There was no room in the inn, and so Mary gave birth to Jesus in a cow stable. The stable stinks like all stables do. The stench of urine, dung, and sheep reeks pungently in the air. The one whom the Angel calls a Savior is born in the most filthy, unsanitary place possible – among manure, muck and mire. The event that divided history and even calendars into two parts probably had more animals than human witnesses.
Of course, there was no medication for Mary to take the edge off of her pain, and so the best Joseph could do is improvise a bed out of straw that he pat together with his dirty, calloused hands. There is the musty smell of damp hay. And the smell of sweat as Mary labors.
Let’s not forget the first visitors – the shepherds. The shepherds stayed up late watching their flock when the ewes were giving birth. They were working overtime, pulling an all-nighter, serving as midwives to assist in the birthing of lambs. We need a scratch-n-sniff Bible to understand why this profession was not high on the list of young professionals. They worked hard in the outdoors among the animals probably with no deodorant or cologne. Yet, before anyone else, the shepherds were the only invited guests to the birth of Jesus. The poor and marginalized have a front row seat.
Of course, there is the smell of a newborn baby. Sure, babies can smell sweet and lovely, but sometimes they don’t. Let’s not forget that Mary had to change Jesus’ diapers…and I doubt that she had any Johnson’s baby powder on hand.
What do these smells tell us? The Divine is born not in a palace, but in a stable among the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity laid not on a bed fit for a king, but in a manger where the animals feed. The Christ child is born to a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock. And soon the family would be fleeing for their life as refugees. Jesus entered the world not in the midst of royalty and wealth, but was born to a poor family managing to eek out a living in humble circumstances. In Luke’s Gospel, Christmas is about God identifying with the marginalized, not the powerful. George Wolf writes, “Christmas is for the working poor, the disenfranchised, the homeless, and the teenage single mom who chose to keep her baby and is struggling to finish school so she can support her child. Christmas is for the disabled veteran suffering from PTSD. It offers hope for prostitutes, alcoholics and drug addicts who are desperately trying to survive and turn their lives around…” (“The Subversive Message of the Christian Nativity,” Dec. 1, 2019, ProgressiveChristianity.org). Yes, Christmas is about God identifying with the marginalized.
I read a story this past week entitled, “The Aroma of Christmas.” I share the story in the words of the author, Barbara Baumgardner. She writes this, “I don’t remember the first Christmas after my husband died – I was in such shock and sorrow. But on that second Christmas after his death, I could tell there had been much healing. Excitement welled inside me as I prepared for a grand and glorious holiday. The kids were coming! Two daughters, a son-in-law and two grandchildren had all agreed to spend Christmas at my home.
I decorated everything I could reach. Christmas music filled the air with “Joy to the World.” The aroma of Christmas was the best part because it deliciously replaced the aroma of death that had hung heavily in my home for so long. Spicy snickerdoodles and chewy lemon sugar cookies produced a spirit-lifting fragrance. Sticky cinnamon rolls, butter-filled bread twists and golden brown pumpkin pies found their way out of the busy kitchen of holiday scents and into the freezer to await a celebration of Jesus’ birth and a reunion of family and friends. This year I could hardly wait to have the family gather for Christmas in my home.
But 7 a.m. three days before Christmas, the first telephone call came. “Mom, I hope you’ll understand. The weather here is below zero, and I’ve been up all night with freezing, bursting water peoples. There’s no way I can leave my home and come for Christmas. Are you okay with that?”
“Of course! You take care of your home,” I said.
The second call came only 20 minutes later. “Mom, with the windchill factor, it’s forty-five below. We can’t leave the sheep and the water pipes to come home for Christmas. Is there any way you can come here?”
“I don’t see how I can get away, Honey. That’s all right. You and Gregg and the kids have a good Christmas, and I’ll put your packages on the bus to you.”:
As I hung up, I felt very, very alone. I couldn’t go to my daughter’s for Christmas because I had committed to some people here in town. I had invited my brother-in-law and his 84 year old mother to Christmas dinner. And I had told the grouchy old man across the street that I would bring him a plate of dinner at two o’clock on Christmas Day. I had invited a single mom with an 8 year old boy to spend Christmas with me and my family. And now my family wouldn’t be here. The widow next door had just come home from the hospital. I had promised to check on her, get her mail and feed the dog. I am stuck here!
I would miss seeing my grandchildren open their beautiful packages and hearing their gleeful cries. “God, it is Christmas and I am going to miss it all!” I cried.
It was then, unexpectedly, that I heard this inner voice – the voice of the Divine. “It’s Jesus’ birthday. What gift could you give him this holiday season?” It was then that I got the idea to invite more folks to Jesus birthday party. My heart began to flutter with anticipation. “There’s that man from the Salvation Army that I fired last summer because I didn’t like the way he trimmed my tree.” I began to laugh. “Wouldn’t it blow his mind if I called and invited him?”
I could invite the old man across the street and his dog to dinner. I could invite the checker from the grocery store who is all alone. What a menagerie of misplaced mortals. My joy soared. The list began to grow as I telephoned people who would be alone for Christmas.
The old man across the street could hardly talk, he was so chocked with emotion when I invited him to come over and join the crowd for dinner.
“Oh, come all ye faithful,” I sang at the top of my lungs. “Come, even if you’re not faithful. Everyone come!” And I punched down the last of the bread dough.
Soon my table was filled, but not as full as my heart. The aroma of the holiday filled my home as I’d planned. But the meaning of Christmas penetrated my heart in a way I’d not anticipated. Never have I received such a precious gift as when I watched the man from the Salvation Army fill his plate five times” (Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas Treasury, pp. 257-261).
Jesus says, “As you did to the least of these, you did it to me. When I was hungry, did you give me something to eat? When I was thirsty, did you give me something to drink? As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.
What is the smell of Christmas? It is the smell of meals served to those have no other table in which to eat.
It is the smell of hot dinner made for refugees seeking a new life free of violence and fear.
It is the smell of brewed coffee served in the Cold Weather shelter.
It is the smell of freshly baked cookies brought to the widow next door.
It is the smell of melting candles at the Blue Christmas worship service in memory of those who have passed from life to Life.
It is the smell of pine of a Christmas tree decorating a nursing home.
It is the smell of hot cocoa served on skid row.
What is the scent of Christmas? In the midst of heartache and heartbreak, it is the smell of hope, peace, joy, and most importantly, love. Amen.