This sermon contains musical interludes and is best heard (above) rather than read. Many thanks to Tom Blosser (piano) and Jim Myers (clarinet), and to Rick Leonard for doing a first draft physics fact check, resulting in some editing that makes me sound like I know more than I do about such things.
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-18
Sitting down a while back to plan this worship series, one of the tasks was assigning which sense would go with which week. Seeing and hearing could go anywhere, but when, exactly, in the Advent to Christmas to Epiphany plot is it time to taste, to touch, to smell? Fortunately, the texts help us out. It’s not every week frankincense and myrrh get hand delivered into the story line. And so, we finally arrive at the wafting wonder of Epiphany. A time to breathe in the fresh air of a new year. Do you smell what I smell?
Do You See What I See?
Matthew’s birth narrative has a distinctly different smell than Luke’s. Luke has the infant Jesus laid in a manger, a feed trough for animals. Do you smell what I smell? Mary and Joseph are soon joined by shepherds who’d been living with their sheep in the fields. There’s no room for them in the inn, so they share space with non-human creatures, and the mostly- domesticated humans who care for them – and the smells that emit from them.
Matthew speaks of educated foreigners – magi – meeting with royalty – Herod – on their way to visit the Messiah whose star they have seen. When they find him, he’s in a house, into which they bring their fragrant and valuable gifts.
If one were to have one’s eyes and ears swaddled around with strips of cloth, such that one could only smell what was going on, one would find it very difficult to imagine that these two scenes are related.
Smell involves breathing in molecules, which get stuck in the back of our nose. Special nerve cells up there differentiate the molecules by firing in different combinations, sending the signal through the brain, which creates the phenomenon of smell. Things that don’t release molecules into the air, like gold, don’t smell.
Smell is the sense most deeply tied to memory. Walk into the home where you grew up, and if it hasn’t undergone an extreme makeover, you will be transported through time not so much by what you see, but what you smell.
I like that in order to smell something, one has to actually welcome a tiny part of that thing into one’s body. To become a place of residence for it. Our bodily experience of a tiny airborne portion of an Other is smell.
The story of the magi ends with a bursting forth of smell as they open their gifts, the baby Jesus gaining an early core memory of the sweet goodness of those outside his own people. Tiny molecules from afar, now so near they get inhaled. But the story begins with something we can’t smell at all. Something massive and far away. A star. The long journey from the east to the house of the Messiah is also a longer journey from the star to the air and bodies inside that and this house.
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Let us imagine there was indeed a star. A star that caught the attention of those who give their attention to stars. They’d been looking for years, decades at the stars. They have inherited the knowledge, the wisdom, the charts and star-maps of their teachers, and those who taught their teachers. And those before them. Generations of those who found wonder and meaning in these lights through which we mysteriously but predictably move.
These wise ones were good to have around. Top consultants for those in power who used such knowledge to administer their domain. Will it be a good harvest year? Shall we set out to battle tomorrow, or shall we wait? When will the rains come? Shall we build the temple here and how shall we orient its base, design its walls and openings to match the cycle of the seasons? What are the stars saying?
Let us imagine there was indeed a star, positioned just so in relation to the others, that caught their attention and caused them to pause and consider.
Let us consider that this star was a flaming ball of hydrogen, the most basic of all atoms. A singular electron dancing around a singular proton. Hydrogen atoms having formed out of the primordial bursting forth, moving outward in all directions from a singular point of unimaginable density. At first, isolated and without partnership or pattern. Then, ever so slowly, drawn together by that gentle and ferocious force of gravity. At first two and three, then two and three thousand, three billion, then uncountable clusters of uncountable congregations of uncountable atoms of hydrogen. Individually imperceptible, but collectively incandescent. So many, so large, so much gravity that these once singular atoms begin to fuse together – an act of creation. Now two electrons dancing around two protons – Helium. Fusion gives off photons. Let there be light, traveling at the speed of itself. Stars turning on in the vast darkness, Christmas lights strung across the sky.
A star is born.
Let us consider that when this particular star was born there were no eyes yet to perceive it. No Bradley Cooper to first perceive the quality of its stardom. To invite it on stage. No Lady Gaga to step out and sing its light. If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it.
Let us consider that the tissues of the eye, the nose, the skin, the vocal chords, are composed of atoms created even further along in the life of a star. Hydrogen fuses into Helium. Helium fuses into carbon. Carbon and helium fuse into oxygen, and we’re on our way to the raw materials that keep you and me alive. Materials that are you and me. That combine in a particular way to smell fire and see stars burning. Bodies that live and breathe, fall in love, and go on journeys.
As the wise ones of our time have informed us, we are the scattered, cooled, and gathered remains of stars no longer seen in the night sky. Stars now cool as a cat, cool as a sheep lying beside a manger, still glowing with splendor. Stars still twinkling in the eye of each and every child of the Creator Spirit.
Let us marvel that when the star gazers saw the star, it was scattered, cooled, and gathered star material in human form recognizing itself. Finding wonder and meaning in these lights through which we mysteriously but predictably move.
We Three Kings
Let us imagine that something in that star caused these star watchers to pack their bags for a long and perilous journey. This star was leading them somewhere. Somewhere unknown but essential to their own being. Someone they’d never met before who would reveal to them a part of themselves they’d never met before.
And so they set off. When you’re used to looking at stars, unfathomably distant, everything on earth seems nearby. When you reckon you share the neighborhood with Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, everybody on your own planet feels like a neighbor.
Let us note that this star led them first to Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews. In Jerusalem they encountered Herod. Matthew writes: “Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’”
Oh Little Town of Bethlehem
Bethlehem – a town of such little significance that one of the ancient prophets felt compelled to write: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of the Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
O little town of Bethlehem, from you shall come something like a small packet of molecules sent out into the world, that scatters and lodges in the nostrils of every sentient being, sniffing the new creation wafting in their direction.
Herod is frightened, paranoid, craving power. Herod understands. Knows that even something small can change the atmosphere, change brains and minds, shift the wind against him. Herod, with the heightened awareness of a blood hound, senses threat. Can smell it miles away. These magi were used to consulting with those in power. Sharing their knowledge for the benefit of rulers. Herod will deploy them for his own purposes.
They arrive in Bethlehem, and come into the house where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are staying. It’s the star that has led them here. They are distant foreigners, Gentiles in a house with Jews. But when your gaze is as long and as deep as the magi, every place that can be visited feels nearby, every person a neighbor, every child a member of the same family.
And so they behold the Christ child.
What Child is This?
They behold the Christ child. Son of the stars. Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus.
Son of Mary. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.”
Son of the stars, Son of Mary, Son of the Most High. The Most High condenses into matter. The Most High fills the universe with bodies which give birth to other bodies, which give and receive the gifts of one another.
The room fills with the smell of sweet frankincense, and earthy myrrh. The odorless gift of gold has its own story. 79 protons. Gold can’t be produced like the lower elements. Our best current theory is for gold to come into being there must be a catastrophic collision of ultra-dense neutron stars. That heat creates the higher elements, including gold. In their deaths those stars create something new not otherwise available.
In that fragrant room there exists the golden possibility of something new. A body to embody the love out of which the cosmos was formed. Not an abstract love. Not the idea of love. But the incarnation of love. The enacting of love. The bringing together of Jew and Gentile. The welcoming of the leper into the community of the worthy. The sharing of bread with the hungry. The embodiment of the eternal flame of love, cooled down to temperatures that lead to life and more life. A life so dense with the divine that when it collided with the god-like power of Rome, it created, in its death, the higher elements not otherwise available.
Herod does not understand how this works, but he is frightened. And he has been tricked. The magi engage in civil disobedience and defy his orders. They return home by another route. Their gifts have been left in Bethlehem. Their eyes now opened to new a world.
Herod launches his pre-emptive strike against the babies of Bethlehem, but Mary and Joseph, with Jesus, get wind of the plans.
Do you see what I see?
Let us imagine the holy family, fleeing for their lives. The long journey – or short, depending on your scale of space – down to Egypt, to escape the murderous Herod. Using the newly gifted gold to pay off coyotes who show them the paths around danger, the doors into shelter. A holy family, myrrh and frankincense hastily packed in their bags, shedding molecules every difficult step of the journey. The fragrance scatters out from the road tread by refugees and migrants, from the snaking line of humanity searching for safety and secure dwellings.
To smell is to take a small part of the other into one’s own being, to have them register in your own field of experience.
Do you smell what I smell? It smells like Christ.