A Nose for the Holy (or the Holly)

Glorious songs, sights, and sounds of end-of-the-year holidays, especially Christmas, are knit into our shared emotions and memories. But the smells of the season seem to be even more so!

Here’s my short, incomplete list of these smells…

Pine Tree Candle – Sometimes you first catch a whiff of this in stores newly decorated for Christmas. There’s probably a dozen varieties of Yankee Candles that exist as tribute to different aspects of this fragrance. Actual pines in the forest are the most breathtaking. There is nothing like the smell of pine. It takes over. Countless families risk the danger of a “real” Christmas tree for only this reason: the piney scent. The stuff in the spray can doesn’t come close, but it’s better than nothing.

Fresh from the Oven Chocolate Chip Cookies – The kitchen is really the iron-fisted queen of Christmas and Holiday smells. I don’t know the science behind the smell of molten chocolate, but I know the power of it. It enters the mind like an unforced hug, like a dark chocolatey Trojan horse. You welcome it unthinkingly, and then it rips the volitional steering wheel from your hands. There is no other power on earth that is able to “amend” diet commitments like the smell of “fresh from the oven Chocolate Chip Cookies.” It exterminates willpower. Gone. “Yes, I’ll have another.”

Fresh from the Oven Cinnamon, Apple Baked Things – This is among the strongest of the season’s kitchen aromas because it connects to the psychology of our holiday expectations. If something like the smell of fresh, hot apple pie is lighting up the air, it bespeaks of a distant hope. Maybe your weird uncle won’t be so weird this year. Maybe the family dinner conversation won’t take its annual dip into the abyss of awkwardness. Maybe another topic of conversation will finally overtake the subject of flatulence at the kids table… maybe literature or current events… maybe…

Gingerbread in the House  – The best way to catch a whiff of gingerbread is to eat it. The taste of ginger has a way of recruiting the sense of smell. All this fun leads you to say to yourself,  “Well, now that I’ve eaten the stale-gummy festooned chimney off of a gingerbread house that was sitting out in the open collecting dust for weeks, I declare my holiday food options expanded! A new world has opened to me.”

Eggnog with Nutmeg – This is the season’s olfactory equivalent of the Stop Sign or the Red Light. If you are about to glug down a second glass of Eggnog, you have reached the border. There is no going back. Somebody should have built a wall, but they did not. You will now find your post-eggnog options quite limited. Capacity for intake dramatically decreases as girth dramatically increases. Belt have more than one hole for a reason. Elastic is like the grace of God sometimes. “No, I’ve had enough. Thanks. I’m good.”

Newly Cracked-Open Hardcover Books – Lots of types of gifts seem to come and go, but the gift of a new book, maybe especially a new hardcover book, is timeless. When you first crack open a new book, there is that freshly printed scent. Some book lovers unashamedly press their noses right into the spine and inhale. Great, great smell. And if the book is an especially good one, it seems to smell even fresher and more valuable.

A Bleak Cold Day’s Bright Warm Fireplace – A lit fireplace is something that changes everything about a room. It offers a symphony of sounds, sights, and smells. It’s something that can be enjoyed alone, but is best enjoyed with others. You need someone to turn to and say, “What a great fire! Just what I needed on such a cold day… in such a cold world.”

Ancient, Churchy Incense – Few Protestant churches get this one. And some Catholic and Orthodox churches struggle as well, but those that do get it offer a palette of holiday aromas that truly transport worshippers. In Exodus 29:18b is says, “It is a burnt offering to the LORD. It is a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the LORD.” This looks like the first of many times something like this is mentioned in the Bible. Apparently, our Creator designed something in us that He has in Himself: the ability to be pleased by aromas that have sacred meaning, many of which are associated with food. In churches, the sacredness should be obvious, linked to sacrifice, which for us as Christians is linked to the Cross, so a form of this can flourish in our private homes too. There are 58 days left till Christmas, and then it is gone again. And then another year is as well. In a world that has always been filled with the kind of hate dominating the news lately, the “holy days” are meant to be just that: holy. Holy means “set apart.” Turn off the cable news and disconnect with the Internet. Turn your eyes from all your screens and onto your one and only life. This is it. Take a deep breath and take in the smells of the season, and thank God for it all.  Never forget that the word “Gospel” means “good news.”

“Why?”

“Why?” I have heard the question often. Occasionally I’m asked how I answer this question, especially when losses are horrible, shocking, cruel, evil… everything like what people in Pittsburgh are suffering tonight.

First, the question “why?” can be two things. It can be a standard question: the one seeking an answer. In cases involving loss, however, it can also be a one-word lament in the form of a question, in which case no answer is given or wanted. Any answer would be unintelligible; it would not matter because it could not change what those grieving wish they could change. Just last night all those people were preparing for their service this morning. They were gunned down in hate, the early reports indicate. “Why?”

I stopped writing here not long after my father passed away, undergoing a series of procedures intended to extend his life. No violence or hatred, of course, but still unexpected. “Why?”

Again, this second form of “why?” that life brings us all to the point of voicing may have a question mark at the end of it, but it is more of a statement. It is not about inquiring; it is about exhaling. It accompanies us when we are furious, not when we are curious. There is little point to explaining anything when most of what is present is pain and grief. Our minds do not hunger for information when our hearts ache for relief. This is especially so when we hurl “why?” up to God. It turns into, “why, God?” Verses like Psalm 22:1 give us confidence that God wants both our “why?” questions and our “why?” statements. Christ quoted this verse and asked God “why?” from the Cross moments before He died.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?”

God knows we sometimes want answers for the sake of answers. He knows that more often we need Him to know our hearts and their condition, especially when they are broken. “Why?”

This second form of “why?” can have many degrees. A family’s private loss is on one end of the scale while a city’s bitter bewilderment is on the other. Tonight it is Pittsburgh’s turn to exclaim “why?” The rest of us join them…

“Why?”