Monday, December 24, 2018

A Holly Jolly Earworm

Is it true that snow covers a multitude of sins?
So much is in the songs, isn’t it? The songs of Christmas, the carols, take us back or pull us in.  Hearing an old recording can transport us to a long-ago experience of Christmas, flooding us with memories.  Singing one for the umpteenth year in a row at Christmas Mass can suddenly fill our mind and heart with an experience and understanding of the closeness and vulnerability of God become (infant) man.   
Last weekend, I visited a home in the late stages of preparation for a party.  Christmas music filled all the rooms, until it began to skip and jump. Eldest son was dispatched to adjust the player by dad, who noted that it was “the best Christmas album ever.”  Clearly, it was the one he had heard his parents play over and over when he was a lad.  I recognize the syndrome; the ones I recall seem to have been produced by Firestone automotive stores, circa mid-1960s.   
Also last weekend, I was able to join our Religious Ed families for the program put on by the students there. It was so good, truly right and just, to hear those young voices sing Joy to the WorldO Come All Ye Faithful, and Silent Night; but it was also something to which many seemed unaccustomed.   Years ago, I realized that our young people have little or no chance to sing these basic Christmas carols for two reasons: first, the soundtrack of the season in public spaces is almost entirely secular; secondly, singing of the birth of Christ is strictly excluded from programs in public schools.  
Those songs, sung by those voices, resonated within me.  It changed my focus, finally flipping my interior Christmas switch, and I went back to the rectory that afternoon and decorated our Christmas tree.  The powerful music drew my attention to the coming feast.
As that scene of Our Lord’s Nativity came to my mind’s eye, with Mary and Joseph above the newborn infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, surrounded by the beast of the stall, also looking on with adoration, what came then to my mind’s ear surprised me.
It was a song not on anybody’s list of Christmas carols:  Ooooh that smell; Can't you smell that smell?  This classic by the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, on the soundtrack of my youth in sweet home Alabama, has never been on my Christmas playlist.  Suddenly it won’t go away.
In Neri di Bicci's Nativity (ca. 1470s), the ox and ass are depicted as being suspicious of how the Christ Child smells.
Of course, Our Lord’s birth did occur in a stable, where ox and ass are feeding, to quote the more customary carol.  That cannot have smelt good!  I never see the Blessed Virgin Mary depicted with crinkled nose, though.  It may provide a more practical reason for the Three Kings to have brought incense! 
The song That Smell, however, came to me this year not because of the biological realities of farm animals, but because of something in the Church.  There is something wrong, something deeply off in the place that welcomes the newborn King.  
First, there is the revelation of horrible abuse of children by priests.  Most of this is not new, but rather a renewal of what the Church herself acknowledged almost two decades ago to have gone on for a long, dark period that we thought had passed; what makes it raw again is how little of it was addressed.  Second, there is the broader question of “inappropriate” behavior by clergy, often with people entrusted to their care.  These were not little children, but younger people, people under their care and under their power, ministry leaders or even seminarians or younger priests.  Last and most appalling is the culture and attitude of leading clergy and bishops that declined to respond to cries for help, shared in the expectations of unchastity, or failed to see the grave wrong because of the blindness they had cultivated toward their own sins. And the odor fills Christ’s Church.
Ooooh that smell; Can't you smell that smell?  The song was written by a bandmember in response to the self-indulgent and destructive behavior of his suddenly successful band-mates: Angel of darkness is upon you / Stuck a needle in your arm / So take another toke, have a blow for your nose / One more drink fool, will drown you / Ooooh that smell; Can't you smell that smell / Ooooh that smell; The smell of death surrounds you.  Death; the result of sin is death.  My mental MP3 player got it just right; there is a smell of death in the Church.
The band Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977.  They are not caroling.
But let’s get back to that manger scene.  The rank odor that surrounded the infant Jesus at His birth was not simply that which is the natural result of healthy farm animals functioning according to their biology and instinct.  It was into the darkness of human sinfulness that He came that dark winter night; and it was the stench of human selfishness in which He immersed Himself to rescue us from it. The smell of death surrounded Him there, too.
This was the plan all along. God the Son gave up the fragrant atmosphere of the heavenly Communion with Father and Spirit not only to visit our stinking world, but to take on our stinking flesh and our stinking, sinful nature with it.  By the power of His unbounded love for us, He did with His flesh and blood what we could not do with our own, which is to obey the will of His Father.  Through Him, our nature and our flesh are buried and raised again, and even now reside in that fragrant Communion where God is all in all.  
By being born into the stench, God brings the sweet fragrance of divinity to our human nature.  There is even a Christmas carol about that, too:  
What is this lovely Fragrance stealing,
Shepherds, that fills the winter air?
Never was sweetness so appealing
Never were flowers of spring so fair
What is this lovely Fragrance stealing,
Shepherds, that fills the winter air?
It’s a French carol, of course; perhaps this understanding contributes to their ability to make the best perfumes.  But I digress.
You and I congratulate ourselves on having better manners than farm animals and better hygiene than most people throughout history, but by no means are we shed of the stench of sin. Jesus knows that, and is born for us and among us not despite that foul reality, but because of it.

With most personal odors, we more readily notice the ones of other people than we do our own, and so with the stink of sin.  This year, it is true, there is a cloud filling the Church that comes from certain sins which most of us can say we do not share.  That cloud, like all of them, someday will be dissipated by the love of God.  May that day be soon!  But meanwhile let us not forget that it is to die for our sins, yours and mine, that the Child is born.  

Ooooh that smell; Can't you smell that smell?  In the fullness of time, every foulness is driven away by the sweetness that comes from the newborn King.  Never was sweetness so appealing; Never were flowers of spring so fair. What is this lovely Fragrance stealing, Shepherds, that fills the winter air?
Sweet music and sweet fragrance now fill this Silent Night.  It is Christ, our Savior, who is Joy to the World!  O Come, All Ye Faithful; let us be washed of every stain and stink of sin by the tiny child we find Away in a Manger.  So much is in the songs, isn’t it?  
From all of us here at Saint Bernadette, We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
Monsignor Smith

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