Christmas is lovely for many reasons, but one of the finest is that our three daughters come and spend more time with us. Our middlest daughter doesn’t come alone but brings along her dog and cat, Hazel and Willow.
Yesterday I decided to take Hazel for a walk. It was one of those magical winter days, with a mixture of ice crystals and jumbo snowflakes plating trees and bushes with an ivory hue – the sun bringing the softest of light to illumine this day on just the other side of the season’s shortest. The weather wasn’t quite warm, but close enough to it that it was surprisingly comfortable.
Hazel travelled a little faster than I generally would on a late morning walk: not quite a brisk stroll, but certainly not a leisurely saunter. I am not accustomed to walking dogs, and so was constantly reminded of that when our pace was interrupted by this tree or that post marked by another dog’s journey. Hazel is not a huge dog, but my arm’s socket now knows well that dogs encounter the world nasally. At one point, I imagined that Hazel was acquiring data for future encounters. She had been particularly insistent on scoping out the tracks of some fellow of hers alongside the road. Each footprint had to be sniffed out as she made her way to the jackpot: a tree marked by a future friend, or foe, I suppose. And then it was time to move on.
She moved nose first, as we humans do although with a different kind of attention and intention. Humans lean heavily on our eyes, it seems. Theologians have noted that the Christianity of the Middle Ages was especially devoted to the eyes, until the time of the Reformation made the Protestant church, after Luther, into a Mundhaus – a kind of place of speech. Of course history, nor theology for that matter, is never so neat and Lutherans have never left the eyes behind even while their ears have been soothed by sermons and Bach; by with words of promise in “given for you, shed for you.” No, our eyes have not been left behind even while our noses, in the main, no longer know of the incense marking a Roman Mass or an Orthodox Eucharist.
I am not sure that this will change. “Scent-free” directives mark much of our public (and ecclesial) space, even while “scent free” is no real possibility in the literal sense of these words. Humans smell, in both the transitive and intransitive modes of the verb: we know the world by our smell and the world knows us by our smell. Hazel and Willow both sniff us out, and know us nasally. So, have we Protestants successfully left behind our sense of the significance of smell? I think not, in that the directives themselves remind us that smell matters. Moreover, God’s incarnation as Jesus was a sensual event in the fullest sense of the word made flesh in a stable.
I grew up on a farm, and so have no romantic notions about stables, or pets for that matter. Stables stink and dogs and cats were and are meant to keep coyotes and rodents, and mice at bay, in turn. That was their job, but they also entertained us and we them; and barns were more than holding pens for pigs and new borne calves. When we entered such places on a crisp winter morn, the steam of a stable relieved this once young boy of the sharp cold of an Alberta winter and reminded me that we are not only care-takers of God’s creatures, but we are one of God’s creatures. I can still remember the sting of winter being relieved in the barn just as surely as I recall Hazel’s insistent investigation of the ground beneath her paws, forcing a pause on me so that I might recall that God’s so loving the world did not and does not stop with homo sapiens; both Hazel and Willow preach that matter, too, matters – including the matter that I am. And that makes me glad, very glad indeed.
Merry Christmas all!