Talashia Keim Yoder explores how utilizing sensory pathways might enlighten our Advent experience this season.
Talashia Keim Yoder is a pastor at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, and lives in Goshen with her husband, Daniel, and their two children. She is passionate about exploring faith at home and in other intergenerational settings. Talashia is also the theater director at Bethany Christian Schools and the writer behind “This is the Story” (godsstorygodssong.com) and Building Faith (buildingfaithfamily.com). Talashia is the author of Advent at Home 2023.
In a recent class on somatic spiritual practices, through Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, we were invited to recall a scent that we associated with a positive spiritual experience. The scent that came to my mind was freshly blown out candles. When I connected that scent to a visual memory, I thought of the Advent wreath of my childhood — dark red candles, settled onto a wooden Lazy Susan, artificial greenery nestled around it. My children, now 10 and 13 years old, echo the feelings of safety, comfort and awe that the smell of cheap, unscented, freshly blown out candles elicit.
Many North American Mennonites of European descent, like me, experience some amount of sensory poverty. Our traditions have largely honored the knowledge-centered pathways to God (head), with strong emphasis on service-centered pathways (hands). We give space for music and storytelling, which tap into emotion-centered pathways (heart). But we historically have viewed sensory pathways (symbols) with some skepticism.
Why do we do this? Some of it goes back to early Reformation history, including the literal whitewashing of and removal of art from worship spaces. Some of it has to do with a prevailing fear of liturgical traditions, like Catholicism. But I suspect that, for most of us, it’s far less intentional than any of that. Rather than reacting against other traditions or holding fast to historic aesthetics, I wonder if it’s a simple lack of exposure.
In that same class, we noticed that the Mennonites in the group struggled to associate smells with spiritual experiences. The closest many of us could come was food at a potluck, which, to be clear, is a wonderful spiritual smell! For the most part, our spiritual experiences had been deprived of scent, taste and art.
The exception for many of us was Advent candles. I did not do my historical research for this blog post, so I don’t know when North American Mennonites began celebrating Advent. I’ll assume it has been at least 40 years, because Advent has been part of my church experiences my whole life! For whatever reason, the season of Advent, including its highly symbolic Advent wreath, was considered safe for us to adopt. And so many Mennonite homes include Advent wreaths, with candles that are lit — and blown out — nightly or weekly. And many children are growing up with the — hopefully — positive spiritual associations that my children and I share.
Winter calls us to be inspired by the natural world around us — to release our grip like the leaves, to rest like the barren trees, to turn inward and trust that God is at work in our restfulness. Advent, a gift during the longest nights of winter, invites us to remember that call to release and rest and trust. The nightly ritual of scent, sound and sight grants us a daily check-in — a chance to remember that all the hustle and bustle of “the season” is not the preparation that God asks of us.
Rather, we prepare for love coming down, by pausing, breathing and remembering — by opening our senses to wonder.
This year’s Advent-at-Home resource dovetails with MennoMedia’s “Leader” magazine theme, “How Will We Know?” The theme invites pausing and wondering. As your households and churches follow the prompts, I hope you find ways to engage all your senses and create sensory memories of the spiritual call of the season. I, for one, look forward to the scent of freshly extinguished candles.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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