Smelling like popcorn and honey.
For you dog owners out there, I read about a recent scientific discovery that your personal smelly scent activates the pleasure centers in your dog’s brain, in the same way that the human brain responds to the perfume or cologne of someone you love. So that must be why Fr Austin’s dog Murphy comes happily running up to me every time I return to the rectory. As soon as he reaches me, his nose is all over my shoes, my pants, my hands in a sniff-snorting, tail-wagging welcome. I must smell darn pretty good.
But then a friend recently got into my car with me, and after a few moments of driving, he turned to me and asked if I smelled dog in the car. No, I said, why? And he asked me if Murphy had ever been in my car, and I told him no, and then he started sniffing around the car. (He’s a little weird.) He suddenly pointed his nose at my adjacent arm, sniffed my shirt and pronounced that I was the culprit. “You smell like a dirty dog,” he said, or words to that effect. I pretended to be deeply offended, but we never really notice how we smell, (right?)… I mean besides the obvious body odors that deodorants are meant to hide. Without admitting it to my friend, I thought, maybe I do smell like a dirty dog, and I certainly knew which dog to blame for my condition.
Later I Googled the subject, and came across a bunch of posts from dog owners who professed how much they loved the smell of their own dogs. One person wrote, “My dog smells lovely and I love the smell of him. He smells of comfort and cuddles and love.”, and another wrote “her head smells like malted milk biscuits, her paws smell like popcorn, and her ears smell like honey”, which of course made me think that those people are as weird as my friend. Or, maybe I smell like popcorn and honey?
When you’re really connected to your animals, when they share your home or even your bed, you can certainly take on their scents. But it made me think about the smell of the sheep that Pope Francis has spoken about so often, how a priest should, like any good shepherd, have on him the smell of the sheep whom he guides and protects. Not above them, but right there in the muck with them.
What does it take to be a good shepherd?
My first exposure to shepherds and sheep was when I was a college student. I took a summer trip with a Spanish-speaking friend to a remote town in the mountains of northern Spain. We stayed in the house of his cousins, and the living room, kitchen and bedrooms were right above the stable where the sheep and the cattle lived. So the whole house smelled like manure, morning noon and night. I remember my first night trying to sleep in the bedroom. The smell was overpowering, and I wondered how I was going to last for two weeks there. I knew that I was going to be doing some shepherding myself, taking the sheep up to the meadows that loomed above the village on the mountainside. Within three days I didn’t smell the manure anymore, and of course I took on the smell of those cows and sheep. Every piece of clothing I had smelled of it as well. For those people who lived that life day in and day out, that was the smell of their family.
Perhaps you wonder what I learned about being a good shepherd? I learned that sheep actually need a shepherd, because they have no natural hierarchy, no leader of the flock. They learn to trust the shepherd, and to hear and understand the voice, and the smell, and the behavior of the person who is looking after them every day. To be a shepherd you need to really be in tune with nature, deal with bad weather, you need to be willing to hang with the sheep for long hours, to work hard and sacrifice—and you do it all to protect your flock, who are vulnerable and dumb as the dirt that they wear on their coats.
The Gospel today is about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In an earlier part we didn’t hear, Jesus calls himself the ‘sheepgate’. I am the shepherd and the sheepgate. What’s that? I Googled that as well. During Jesus' time, shepherds protected their flocks with their own bodies. A sheep pen was merely a wall of loosely connected rocks with a single entrance. At night the shepherd slept across the entrance so that his body became a protection for the sheep from their own straying or from marauders. The body of the shepherd kept the sheep from wandering out and getting hurt but it also kept animals and bandits from entering the pen and attacking the sheep. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
And if a good shepherd literally lays down beside his animals, he undoubtedly shares their personal aroma. I like to think that the hundreds and thousands of people were drawn to Jesus when he walked this earth because the pleasure center in their brains and the hunger centers in their hearts were responding to the honeyed ‘smell’ of his love.
You know…when we try to get our minds around God, it is nearly impossible to do so. When you look at the night sky in a remote location with no light pollution, it is a breathtaking, overwhelming sight. Science tells us that the night sky is made up of billions of stars and planets within billions and billions of galaxies. I can’t even imagine a million of anything, much less billions of billions of billions of things. So for us to try to understand the creator of all of that, of everything that is or ever was or will ever be, to try to understand ourselves and why we are, you might as well just throw a bunch of feathers in the air and remain mute for the rest of your life.
The way into that awesomeness, the only way for our puny minds and hearts to understand who is giving us the next heartbeat and the next breath, is through Jesus, this… man, this guy who cried as a baby, who dreamed as a young man, who suffered with family and friends. The only way to give our hearts and minds to the Force behind all things is through Jesus, who smelled like us and all the life that lived around him. He took on the smell of the sheep, didn’t he, and he took on all the things that give us joy and hope and pain and suffering, and because he took it all on and transcended it all, we are drawn to him, we follow his voice and his scent and his invitation to be real disciples and apostles of love to the rest of the world.
This Easter season, with the fragrance of Easter flowers still in the air and alleluias on our lips, we cannot forget the hard dead wood of Calvary. We cannot forget how this good shepherd laid down his life for us. And he didn’t do it because we had “fleece as white as snow.” Far from it. We are as muddy and as ordinary and as unclean as those sheep I saw in Spain. We aren’t always beautiful. But the Good Shepherd who is Christ loves us anyway.
And he calls on us to love one another the same way. And this may be our greatest challenge. If we are to be imitators of Christ, we must be willing to be more than sheep. We must also be shepherds—good shepherds and sheepgates to each other, and good shepherds of our faith. We must be unafraid, devoted, steadfast. We need to protect each other from the wolves. We need to support those who are frail…nurture those who are weak…lead back those who are lost…comfort those who are afraid…love those who are covered with dust from the journey.
You can only do that if you are one with the sheep, have their smell and wear the dirt of their lives. Take a deep breath, look around you. It’s us, we’re all in this pen together. Shall we think about that for a moment? How can we be servant leaders—people of compassion and conviction, people of mercy, sacrifice, and tenderness? How can we lay down our lives for one another?
This is what a good shepherd does. This is how a good shepherd sounds. This is how a good shepherd smells. This is what Christ has done for us. This is what we must do for each other. And we can only do it with Him.