Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Smells and Swells

Matthew 2:1-12

As a denizen of rural Central New York, I have to remind myself that many of our Westchester County neighbors have no idea what barns smell like.

The television barns they remember, portrayed in Green Acres, Mayberry RFD, Mr. Ed, or Hee Haw, were well swept rustic structures smelling of fresh hay and Ava Gabor’s French perfume.

Even factual documentaries on farm life – one of my favorites is Brother’s Keeper about three bathless bachelors whose rickety barn stood a few miles from where I grew up – do not have the benefit of smell-o-vision. In this particular film, it’s easier to imagine the stench in the unwashed brothers’ cramped sitting room.

As far as authentic barn smell goes, you have to experience it yourself. The combination of fresh and stale manure, fermenting hay, and smoldering covens of cats and rats, is unimaginable to city folk and suburbanites. Eau de Merde doesn’t even come close to describing it.

Even so, millions around the globe are not only familiar with the smell but find it unobjectionable. I remember visiting the Philadelphia Zoo after years of relatively odor-free living in barracks, dormitories, and apartments, and being taken aback by a whiff of elephant droppings. My eyes filled with tears, mostly because of the sting of the stench, but also because of the sweet nostalgia of the smell, so much like the tang of Leon Korzeniewski’s cow barn on the outskirts of Morrisville, N.Y. There’s something bonding about barn bouquet. It not only unites billions of noses in common cause, it also brings us closer to the thousands of generations that came before us. 

That’s one reason we can praise God that Jesus was born in a barn. It puts the incarnation in perspective. Contrary to depictions in Renaissance art, Jesus did not enter the world in a sterile lean-to adorned with lights, freshly bathed shepherds, and streaming gold ribbons. He was born in a stable replete with rotting hay and fetid sheep. 

As we strive to understand the Christ event, the stench of excrement should be as evocative as the Eucharist. Every time we walk into a barn, a still small voice should whisper in our ears: “Smell this in remembrance of me.”

Much of Christian art seeks to glorify some of the ruder elements of the gospels. Mangers are radiant. Lepers and beggars greet Jesus in well-pressed robes. Jesus walks the dusty paths of Palestine wearing a bleached robe and, often, carrying a snowy white lamb on his shoulder. Brass crosses on our communion tables shimmer with jewels so bright that one theologian suggested that to be affixed to one would be a beatific experience. 

I sometimes think that the Magi – the three mysterious kings from Orien-TARR – were added to the manger story to clean it up a bit.  Certainly this smelly little barn would seem more like the proper birthing room of a king if three other kings in silken robes dropped by to pay homage.

It may seem a bit sacrilegious to suggest that anything about these three kings was made up to improve the story. Then again, so much of what we think we know about them has been made up.

Matthew’s gospel says nothing, for example, about who they were, how many they were, what their names were, where they came from, what their racial background was, what they were king of, or what they were wise about. There is certainly no mention of their dromedary conveyances. And yet over the years we have managed to fill in all those blanks. 

How did scholars do that? They make it up. 

Thanks to long standing church tradition, we call them by name: Melchior a Babylonian scholar; Caspar (also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa, and other variations), a Persian scholar; and Balthazar (also Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea), an Arab scholar. One was black. Two were not.

It is also long standing church tradition that the travelers were three in number. Some scholars say church tradition jumped to that conclusion because it corresponded with the number of gifts they brought the Christ child: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There are those who believe there may have been more magi than that.

According to an article in, an eighth century Syriac manuscript in the Vatican Library suggests the Magi may have numbered as many as 12 and perhaps there were scores of them. 

The dubious manuscript, entitled Revelation of the Magi and allegedly written by the Magi themselves, has been translated into English by Dr. Brent Landau, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Landau writes:

The magi (defined in this text as those who “pray in silence”) are a group . . . of monk-like mystics from a far-off, mythical land called Shir, possibly China. They are descendants of Seth, the righteous third son of Adam, and the guardians of an age-old prophecy that a star of indescribable brightness would someday appear “heralding the birth of God in human form. When the long-prophesied star finally appears, the star is not simply sighted at its rising, as described in Matthew, but rather descends to earth, ultimately transforming into a luminous “star-child” that instructs the magi to travel to Bethlehem to witness its birth in human form. The star then guides the magi along their journey, miraculously clearing their path of all obstacles and providing them with unlimited stamina and provisions. Finally, inside a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the star reappears to the magi as a luminous human child—the Christ child—and commissions them to become witnesses to Christ in the lands of the east. 
Landau gives little credence to this apocryphal document but it highlights how far church tradition has gone to fill in the blanks left by Matthew’s gospel. And chances are good that the notion of 12 or 60 Magi descending on the manger will not soon catch on in churches. It would overwhelm the Christmas bathrobe pageants in most congregations.

But regardless of all the mystery surrounding the Magi, one thing seems clear: the gospel writer saw them as a dramatic way of illustrating the profound significance of the incarnation in Bethlehem.

There could be no greater miracle than this:

That on a dark night in an isolated hamlet on the edge of an already declining empire, surrounded by poverty and mud and the stench of animals, the Creator of the Universe took the form of a helpless baby boy who was lain in the accumulated debris of a feeding trough. 

Any story teller would feel challenged to tell the story in such a way as to attract a maximum of attention.  And who could doubt that such a miracle would be – must be – accompanied by a descending star, a chorus of angels, and gilded kings wandering in from eastern climes?

Whoever and whatever the Magi were, they understood their role in the miracle of incarnation.

Magi, they stooped to see your splendor, 
Led by a star to light supreme; 
Promised Messiah, Lord eternal, 
Glory and peace are in your name. 
Joy of each day, our song by night, 
Shine on our path your holy light. 
- Christopher Idle