For some people, the smells of Christmas are chestnuts roasting over an open fire (has anyone actually tried this?) or gingerbread cookies. Maybe it’s a peppermint hot chocolate, or that fresh scent of pine needles from a Christmas tree that puts you in the Christmas spirit. For me it’s the smell of manure. The smell of fodder, of earth, a dank cave or wet sheep’s wool. That smell you pick up from being with the homeless, from serving at a soup kitchen. It’s the scent of the Traveling People, the Folk Who Live Outside, of field and fauna. The smell of unwashed bodies, both animal and human, who sleep under moon and sun has a potency all its own. In reality, the smells and bells of Christmas are more akin to these. I propose that the first Christmas smelled like anything but pumpkin pies and cinnamon sticks. And into this pungent place of the poor, came our humble, little God.
In Michael D. O’Brien’s novel “Strangers and Sojourners”, we meet an unlikely couple living in the 1800s in the wilderness of Canada: Stephen, a rugged Catholic farmer from Ireland, and Anne, a Protestant school teacher from England. They come from two different worlds and two different ways of viewing God and His approach of connecting with humanity. In this particular scene in the book, those worlds collide. At the end of another weary day living on the farm and raising their children the best she can, Anne in desperation cries out to her husband, “The excrement, excrement everywhere! The outhouse is full, the barnyard is heaped with it. The children persist in leaping barefoot into cow-pies, and they track dung in on their toes.”
“Sometimes I just wish the place could be cleansed. Clean! Pure!” she retorts.
Stephen knows this complaint well, and knows it has deeper roots in his Annie. It betrays the great conflict in her heart between the dirty, raw and rugged life they live in their little fiefdom of cabin and fields, and what she perceives the transcendent Kingdom of God to be, a spiritual, even intellectual life, detached from all of this dung and dirt and drudgery here below. Stephen sees in Anne a great yawning cavern that if it’s not spanned will leave her forever at odds and isolated within herself, her family, and with God Himself. He responds “Annie, sometimes I don’t know about your God.”
“Your God is too much an English judge. I can’t warm my hands by his fire.”
“Who, then, do you believe in?” she asked, turning to him.
“My God is a peasant, dragging his cross through the streets of Dunquin and Swiftcreek. He’s
got splinters and dirt on his fingers. He laughs and weeps.”
“And smokes, no doubt! A real regular fella!” she snorted. “A smoking god!”
“A warm God. A father”, he said, wanting to look into her eyes. “A bleeding God”, he added.
“Your God wasn’t lowered on a golden chain, woman. He chose to be birthed in a stable. It
wasn’t any Christmas crèche either. He was born beside smells that weren’t too polite. And he
walked through a little bit of a tough hill town. Shepherd folk with sheep grease on their
The scandal of the Incarnation lies here. The scandal of Christmas. It’s the same scandal
that the Jews of Our Lord’s day could not fathom, that the God of the Universe would lower
Himself into the very bowels of the earth, into the cold cave at Bethlehem and later plunge
Himself into the waters of the Jordan River, and further still in the Eucharist, He would become
our food, cloaked under the guise of bread and wine to plunge down deep into our very
bodies. This God is humble and He descends. He has no hangups about hanging up His divinity.
He clothes himself with the very matter that he made and marries the material world to Himself.
This Eternal God has bound Himself to time and space, to blood and bone and flesh and this
mortal coil He will never shuffle off, but rather He bears it into eternity itself. He has married
matter to make Himself one with us. Wonder of wonders!
And here we are, like Anne, seeking to escape it. Living in a post-Christian, digital world
of ease and touch screens and instant downloads, and social media platforms that seem to make us ironically more anti-social, more cerebral and detached from the experiences at hand in the real world. Everything is conditioned to our comfort. The plodding work of living, of the dirt and the sweat and the milk and the manure is a quaint memory for many of us moderns. Yet this poor, tiny Christ lies there in squalor, in a bucket where animals feed, in rags. Our humble, little God waits, seeking the manger throne of our hearts, longing to be touched, taken in, wrapped in our weak arms, kept close in our cluttered hearts. A new manifestation of that ancient Manichaeism would have us stay distant from this real world, washing our hands at the lightest brush against it. Keep clean, sanitize! Stay pure, be safe!
Now I’m not advocating we all embark on a season of Survivor: Catholic Edition, or get
rid of indoor plumbing, or jump off the grid and head to the Aran Islands and become one with
the sheep and the sea (though it is a bit tempting, truth be told) so that we might truly understand
the original kenosis of Christmas. I just believe the rawness and realness of what happened in
Bethlehem is a glorious reminder and a refresher for us of what it means to be human.
I want to go back there. I want to “feel Christmas in my heart” as the song goes, but I
want to smell it, taste it, experience it too. To be a part of the beautiful mess of matter and spirit.
This is the humble way, the way of humus, of the earth and the soil. In becoming man, God gave
us the first lesson in Humanity 101. “God made man from the dust of the earth…”
St. John tells us that the Antichrist is “he who denies Christ come in the flesh.” Then let’s
be wary of escaping from it into a cozy and controlled virtual world of our own making, or of
covering over all with glitter and glitz. Let’s meet the poverty, the reality of Christmas, of the
beauty of the real world that our humble, little God has filled with Himself and comes to offer to
each of us. This might practically mean talking to the marginalized at the parties you attend, or to
reach out and meet the person trapped in sorry circumstances, just to feel it with them, and offer
a hand. It may simply mean walking away from the lights and the music for just a stretch, and
feeling the air, and watching the stars, and smelling the same earth that He touched, the moon He
saw rise, and the mournful birdsong that mysteriously moved His heart too. Let’s feel Christmas
again in all of its stark simplicity and its earthy extravagance, for into this world a Child is born.
BILL DONAGHY has spoken internationally on faith and the New Evangelization since 1999. Through his work with the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bill gave hundreds of talks on the spirituality of mission to young people throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond, creating a teaching and speaking ministry known as MissionMoment.org. He holds an Associates Degree in Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Systematic Theology. In addition to his full-time work for the Theology of the Body Institute, Bill teaches at Immaculata University. He and his wife, Rebecca, live outside of Philadelphia, PA with their four children.