That Stinky 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 than 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

Not of the World

One of the challenges of being a Christian is to live up to the adage that we are called to be “in the world but not of the world.” Jesus speaks about this to His followers in a few places including John15:19 and again in John 17:14-6. We know that the world around us is not our true home and that heaven is our destiny. Folks should be able to look at how we live our lives and know that we’re different from non-believers. All of us have heard this teaching since childhood, but often it’s difficult to know how to do it. How can I follow Christ in a way that will draw others to Him?

The season of Advent, which we’re about to enter into, is a great opportunity to do that. The world around us pushes us directly from Thanksgiving into Christmas, without a moment to prepare or reflect on the coming of Jesus. The world expects us to observe Black Friday as if it is a kind of religious holiday. But that doesn’t mean that we Christians have to do it. In the weeks leading up to His birth, shouldn’t we imitate Jesus in doing what He did when He was preparing for an important event?

When Jesus was getting ready to begin His ministry, He withdrew from the world to fast and to pray. When He felt overwhelmed by the noise and crush of the crowds, He withdrew to fast and pray (Luke 5:15-16). As He faced His arrest, He went to the Garden to pray. Jesus faced the trials and challenges of His life through prayer and reflection. His disciples noticed this. They saw Him treat quiet prayer as a critical part of His life. Do we do that? Do we imitate Jesus or do we imitate the world?

As we prepare to celebrate His birth, we enter into Advent, which is meant to be a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We should be spending quiet time in prayer, not frantically decorating our house, splurging on sweets, and buying everything in sight. Because if that’s what we’re doing, we’re being an example of worldliness. All that joyous celebration comes with Christmas, but now, we are called to prayer. We’re asked to prepare our hearts for His coming, to withdraw from the crowds and to pray.  

Many times it’s hard to know how we can set ourselves apart from the fallen world around us. We can do that in Advent. We can pray with our families at meals, including if we eat out in a restaurant. We can add additional prayer time for ourselves. There are lots of great Advent series online, but my favorite reading is the Book of Isaiah. The prophet unfolds the story of the coming Messiah in such beautiful images. He makes us feel the longing that the people of Israel felt for their Savior. We learn how they must have felt “walking in darkness” and knowing that a Great Light was coming for them. Isaiah is so beautifully poetic and I encourage you to read it in the weeks leading up to Christmas. And we should fast like Jesus did. Even if it’s only saying “no” to those Christmas treats, it’s a way we can control our appetites for the things of the world, for a greater good. We should also do good for others, and not just for our family and friends. We should give of our time and our treasure to folks who have no way of paying us back.

When you spend your Advent in quiet preparation, you can hear the Lord lead you to Himself. People will notice. They may ask, “Why haven’t you put up your Christmas tree yet?” They may wonder why your twinkling lights are missing. And you can use those questions (especially from your kids) to let them know the importance of preparing our hearts for Jesus’ birth at Christmas. It’s a chance to share your faith with others. It’s a chance to live differently than the unbelievers around us. Advent has been lost by many Christians and it’s time we reclaim its beauty and reverence. Light the first candle of your Advent wreath and let the joy of anticipating His coming fill your heart, as you wait.  

“At this Christmas when Christ comes, will He find a warm heart? Mark the season of Advent by loving and serving others, with God’s own love and concerns.”

—–Saint Teresa of Calcutta

Jesus and Water

We begin our human lives in a salty sea inside our mother’s womb.  Water is our first home.  In the most basic biological sense, water is life.  Our bodies are about 75% water, the same as the earth on which we live.  Most of us could live for about a month without food, but only about three days without water.  Water is what keeps us going.  In Scripture, we know that God chose water to cleanse the earth of sin in the great flood.  The ark built by Noah saved the souls of the 8 people who would rebuild humanity.  God helped the Jewish people escape slavery in Egypt by leading them through water.  We know that water is esteemed by the Lord because of the role water plays in our sanctification.  Christ is the Living Water which alone can satisfy the deepest thirst of our souls for truth and hope and love.  Before Christ, the ritual washings and purifications of the Jews prefigured the cleansing power of the Sacrament of Baptism.  Our Lord was baptized by His cousin John, who announced that day that Jesus is the Lamb of God (John 1:29).  Water is our entry into the Church.  Through Baptism we are marked as a child of God, a member of His royal family.


Which brings us to why I love holy water.  To begin with, there’s nothing magic about holy water.  It’s what the Church calls a “sacramental.”  It’s not a Sacrament itself like Baptism or Confirmation, but it is a “sacred sign which bear(s) a resemblance to the Sacraments” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1667).  Most Catholic Churches have a baptismal font in the entry of the building to remind us that it is through Baptism that we come into God’s family.  The font is filled with water that has been blessed by a priest.  You may also see smaller holy water fonts at the inner doorways to the nave, or seating area.  Catholics dip three fingers of their right hand into the water in the fonts when they enter the church.  We pray the Sign of the Cross and reverently bless ourselves “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  The blessing the priest gave the water is attached to it.  So using holy water to bless yourself or your children or your home conveys that same blessing.  Devoutly blessing yourself with holy water remits venial sins.  This is powerful stuff.  Sometimes I think we take holy water for granted.  Listen to this, which is from the prayer blessing the water and describes the power it has to “…put to flight all the power of the enemy and be able to root out and supplant that enemy and his apostate angels.”  There’s a reason demons flee from holy water—it reflects the goodness of God and evil abhors love and mercy and hope.  If you don’t keep holy water in your home, get some.  Use a clean sealed bottle and bring some home.  I have a personal font by the front door.  I bless myself when I leave and when I come home.  The Church encourages us to bless ourselves and our family members.  You can use holy water to bless your home, your family, your car, your pets, your meals.  If you’re sick, you can add a few drops to your food.  Remember, holy water isn’t a magic potion.  Like other sacramentals, it prepares us to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Holy water helps us to remember how much God loves us.


I love holy water because it reminds me of my Baptism.  I was nineteen and I’ll never forget the joy of knowing God’s love and mercy had made me as white as snow.  It was knowing how much He loves me and wants me to know and love Him.  When I bless myself, I remember His love anew.  I love holy water because it makes me look differently at the ordinary things of the world.  God uses ordinary things like water and oil, bread and wine, and transforms them into extra-ordinary creations.  He wants to do the same thing to me and to you.  Holy water is as powerful as our faith in Christ.  It is the mercy and forgiveness of God.  It makes demons flee in terror.  It refreshes my soul.


I read once that love is an act of continual forgiveness.  That means God is continual forgiveness, since God is love.  Every time I use holy water, I remember how much God loves me and forgives me, every day, every moment.   When we don’t take advantage of the goodness of holy water, we miss out on this gift of blessing God has given to us.  I don’t know about you, but I need His blessings.  I need all of them.  And I especially need His mercy and forgiveness. That’s what holy water reminds me.  That I’m loved and I’m forgiven.  Thanks be to God.


“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”                —Mark Twain