Bishop: Thanksgiving Aromas

by Bishop Joensen | November 19, 2021

Bishop William Joensen

Ah, the indelible experience of walking into a house where Thanksgiving dinner is being prepared!  Even for someone as olfactorily challenged as I am, the singular cornucopia of smells that converge on this day—sweet potatoes adorned with marshmallows and cinnamon, the scalloped corn casserole, the fresh-baked rolls, the cranberry sauce, mushroomed green beans, sage stuffing, assorted pumpkin, pecan, and take-your-pick fruit flavored pies--and of course, the great bird at the center of it all—create an aroma that evokes memories and stirs tastebuds to prepare for the onslaught of flavors that await us when we finally sit down at table.

For most of us, the smells of this year’s Thanksgiving feast will be ever more vivid when set against last year’s COVID-19 induced fast—from food, and from the company of family, friends, and new acquaintances whose physical presences contribute their own unique and complementary array of scents.  For scientific researchers such as Rachel Herz have pierced some of the mystery surrounding the reasons why we not only detect and interpret smells in a very personal way, but also emit our own boutique bodily scent prior to any skin products or perfumes we might apply. 

For it seems there is a genetic complex of genes tied to our immune system that gives rise to our eminently unique and inimitable “fragrance” among the human community (identical twins excepted, of course).  Hence, grandma and grandpa, teenage cousins and young couples, toddlers and newborns with their fresh ruddy skin giving rise to a pleasant scent that even a dirty diaper can only temporarily suppress: all contribute to the privileged sensation of being together in the same household for Thanksgiving.

In a spiritual sense, there is another Thanksgiving feast that is not limited to the fourth Thursday of November, but is perpetually and frequently available to persons of faith: the Eucharist.  By God’s intention, the celebration of the Eucharist is a graced composite of many aspects that impinge upon our consciousness, our appetites.  It is both gift and sacrifice, medicine and food for the journey of life, stimulus for conversion and foretaste of the heavenly banquet, source of celebration and cause for Thankgiving, ineffable Mystery and materially perceived (albeit, under the appearance of bread and wine) assurance of Christ’s presence among us. 

The Eucharist is a fragrant offering, meant to rise like incense before the throne of the heavenly Father.  The re-presentation of Christ’s Body and Blood at Mass is the catalyst and goal of God’s love forming us into a pleasing household of faith.  We become a communion of believers spanning heaven and earth where the varied degrees of personal holiness participate diversely in a body whose immune systems should be allergic to sin, rather than to one another.

At this writing, our U.S. Catholic bishops are engaged and may have already approved a message addressed to all of our country’s Catholics:  The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.  It is intended to help activate a revival of Eucharistic faith among us, to stir conversion and transform us into disciples who, having feasted on the Lord’s love, are moved to bear this love outwardly in witness, service, and might I suggest, personal “scent” into places where the acrid and sweated odors of human struggles are intense.  The bishops’ draft message has itself created a “stink” in certain circles for the contentious spin that claims certain politicians would be targeted for exclusion from communion at Mass.  This is not the case. 

Among the inspiring and refreshing features of the draft message are the mention of particular modern-day saints whose Eucharistic faith and insights into the Mystery enhance the aroma and awareness of the experience of being personally present at Mass.  These saints include Dorothy Day, Teresa of Calcutta (no surprise there!), Elizabeth Ann Seton, and two others with whom you may or may not be familiar.  I cite the draft document briefly.

Blessed Carlo Acutis was an Italian teenager and computer “geek” who died at the age of 15 and was beatified in 2020.  He attended daily Mass and prayed in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.  He was also fascinated by Eucharist miracles and created a website detailing these miracles, in effect becoming an “apostle of the Eucharist through the internet.”  He emanated joy and humility to others whom he accepted and drew into friendship.  Amid the wave of distractions that confront us each day, including teenagers perhaps more than any others, he focused on the main course of life: “To always be united with Christ: This is my life’s program.”  “The Eucharist is my highway to heaven.” His sudden illness and death did not spoil the recipe of his youthful sanctity, but seasoned it to perfection.

Likewise, José Sánchez del Río, another teenage from Mexico, was filled with the love of Jesus and his Church. He was imprisoned and ultimately martyred at the age of 14 because he would not renounce Christ and his Kingship.  Others helped to smuggle the Blessed Sacrament into his cell along with a basket of food, strengthening him to pray for the conversion of his persecutors.  He resolutely declared, “My faith is not for sale.”  St. José Sánchez del Río was canonized in 2016.

Blessed Carlo and St. José join all the rest of God’s saints around the banquet table of the altar each time and everywhere Mass is celebrated in the churches of our Des Moines Diocese and around the world.  We are privileged to count them among the household of our faith family, grateful that they enhance and elevate the rich aroma of our feasting and our capacity to be grateful for what God has bestowed upon us in his Son.  Jesus mysteriously accompanies us whether we are buying groceries, preparing a meal, visiting the homebound or volunteering at a food pantry, washing dishes, or yes, simply kicking back and watching a football game and taking a nap.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we again coordinated our holiday so that it is truly a Holy Day, giving the cook and everyone else a chance to first take in Thanksgiving Day Mass, where it is not the turkey, but the Son of God himself, who is simultaneously the main course and the head chef?  Whether the presiding priest chooses to use incense or not, our presence will make the experience even more fragrant for all who partake, even if we have yet to achieve the odor of sanctity.

Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.