That Horrible Smell? It’s Me…….

  
This time of year is filled with stuff that triggers our memories of Christmases past. Maybe nothing transports us to another time and place more immediately than the smells we associate with this season. I’ll bet you can easily name a half-dozen smells that come to mind. A fresh-cut Christmas tree. A bayberry candle. Cookies baking in the oven. A dusting of nutmeg on a cup of eggnog. Wood smoke. Incense at Mass. Scientists tell us that our sense of smell is very closely tied to our memories. Without requiring any thought on our part, a smell can call forth memories and emotions. I think this is especially true at Christmas, when smells and memories are so incredibly strong. After all, we don’t usually recall the “smells” of Halloween or Easter or Labor Day. Christmas is a time set apart for remembering.  

We can imagine the smells of that first Christmas, too. Maybe a little more earthy then our modern holiday. The smells of hay and grain. The pungent odor of manure. The stone and the wood of the walls and the manger. The animal smells of the warm donkey, sheep, and goats. Later, of course, we would smell the spicy frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi. The incense we use at Mass recalls the sweet smoke of the Temple priests as they prayed for the people of God. And myrrh which was used to anoint the bodies of the dead, foreshadowing the Crucifixion. Holy Scripture shares many verses about smells: from how the Lord enjoyed the odor of Noah’s animal sacrifices (Genesis 8:21), the sweet incense offered to Him by His priests (Exodus 30:26-27) to the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany on the night before He died (John 12:3). St. Paul tells us that our very lives “are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God”(II Corinthians 2:14). We associate holiness with a sweet aroma that is pleasing to God. 

And we think of sin as having the acrid odor of corruption and decay. This seems logical since sin equals death and death stinks. When something or someone dies, cells break down, toxins emerge, tissues fall apart. And what was once the sweet aroma of life transforms into the noxious, rancid fester of decay.. One of my favorite images from Holy Scripture is the story of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, who had died and been buried in a tomb. Jesus loved Mary and Martha, who were Lazarus’ sisters and He went to see them and give them comfort. But the comfort He planned to share went beyond the ordinary. He walked to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. Even after his body had been rotting in the tomb for days. When He tells Martha what He’s about to do, ever-practical Martha gives one of the best one-liners in the Bible: “”Lord, there will be a stench”(John 11:38). Jesus calls Lazarus to life and out of the grave he comes, still wrapped in his funeral shroud. Then, another great verse, as Jesus tells His followers,”Unbind him, and let him go”(John 11:44).  

And that, my friends, is exactly what Jesus does for you and for me in the Sacrament of Confession. Sin makes me stink. Serious sin disrupts my relationship with God–it takes my spiritual life away and leaves me dead inside. I’m wrapped up in the trappings of my bad choices, constrained by the shroud of sin. Confession frees me, it allows me to come clean and to encounter the life-giving mercy of my Savior. His grace unbinds me from my trappings and makes me a new creation, alive again in Him. Through His priest, I hear those great words of forgiveness and mercy. Like Lazarus, He raises me from the dead and lets me go free. He welcomes me back from the dead and my rotten stench is filled with His sweet aroma. Every confession is no less of a miracle than when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. And He is waiting there to do the same for you. 

Whether it’s been two weeks or 25 years since your last confession, this season of Advent is the perfect time to come home. As we prepare to welcome His birth in Bethlehem, confession prepares us to meet Him again in our hearts. You’ll be unbound from the binding of your sins and once again, you can offer your life as a sweet-smelling sacrifice to Him. Don’t be afraid. Coming home to the Lord smells like hope.

“…walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”

    —-Ephesians 5:1-2

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