A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Celebrating (dogs and) Epiphany

One of my favorite Dean Koontz novels opens from a dog's perspective. It's running down a city street at night and the reader begins to visualize the dog's environment, not through what he sees, but by what he smells - garbage, people, cars....even danger, fear and death.

According to Wikipedia, dogs have nearly 220 million smell-sensitive cells over an area about the size of a handkerchief compared to 5 million over an area the size of a postage stamp for humans. Dogs can sense odors at concentrations nearly 100 million times lower than humans can. And the percentage of the dog's brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is actually 40 times larger than that of a human.

Other websites* offered additional information. A dog's sense of smell is thought to be up to 10,000 times better than a human's. In tests, "dogs have been able to pick up the odor of chemical solutions that form one or two parts in a trillion. That's the equivalent of smelling one bad apple in two billion barrels." Dogs have an extra organ in their nasal cavaity called "Jacobson's organ". This organ allows dog to combine a sense of smell and taste meaning, "dogs can literally taste the air."

Dogs can detect cancer in humans. Trained dogs can detect lung, breast and other cancers with an accuracy rate of between 88 and 97 percent simply by smelling a person's breath. The accuracy rate of a multi-million pound hospital scanner is between 85 and 90 percent. Dogs can also be trained to use their sense of smell to alert people with heart conditions or with epilepsy if they are about to suffer a seizure.

According to Joan Capuzzi Giresi, a veterinarian and contributor to dog channel.com, "Your dog's nose is like man's opposable thumb, that singular, stunning evolutionary gift that opens the beholder to a whole world the un-endowed can never know."

The dogs in our lives inhabit the same world we do, yet they comprehend reality in a strikingly different way. And I haven't even started in on a dog's keen sense of hearing. They understand dimensions of God's created world that we simply are not privy to. But their world is just as real as our own.

Let's take a jump now to Epiphany and the wise men. Astronomy is a field of science about which I am completely ignorant. I do well to pick out the big dipper and that's about it. A new and interesting star could appear in the night sky and I'd never know. Thousands of new stars could appear and I'd be equally clueless. This is a part of the world I'm aware of but not tuned into. If we back things up 2,000 years, it appears people were just as ignorant about the night sky as I am today. This was not a star anyone noticed, except for the fabled wise men.

Epiphany is a time to celebrate the bright light that entered our world at Jesus' birth. While I believe this to be true, I wonder if we mistakenly assume this light was blindingly evident to human eyes. The shepherds didn't see this light, they let an angel lead the way. Only at the manger did they apprehend a glow. The wise men see a literal light in the sky which for them signified the birth of a great, new ruler, but even the wise men ended up first in Jerusalem and had to be helped along on their journey, ironically, by Herod. Anna and Simeon saw the light enter the temple in the form of an infant, but scripture doesn't indicate that anyone else in the temple that day was particularly moved. John the Baptist seemed always to be tuned into the light of Christ, but Jesus' followers and diciples took a long time to see the light, despite spending years in Jesus' physical presence. Paul had to be blinded by a direct and traumatic encounter with the light of Christ before he could finally see it.

The light of Christ we celebrate at Epiphany is perhaps a little more subtle, a little more hidden than we like to admit. It's almost as if the light of God isn't so evident in this dimension, or to our limited spiritual senses. But that doesn't make the light any less real or present. I can't smell a leaky gas pipe buried 40 feet underground, like a dog can.** But that doesn't mean it's not there. Rather, I am severely limited in my ability to appreciate and apprehend all that is happening in my immediate envirnoment.

It isn't easy to see a lot of Christ's light in this world. Our attention is more easily drawn to the darkness - war, poverty, suffering...the list is unending. But that doesn't mean the light isn't here. This is where faith enters in. We believe in that which is yet unseen. If we had eyes as spiritually adept as dog's noses are physically adept, we would find ourselves bathed in the light of Christ. It would be evident everywhere. For now, we go in the faith that our senses are limited but despite this, we are surrounded by the beautiful light of Epiphany, now and always.

I am so thankful for those people in our midst who have been born with a special ability to, if not see this light, then sense it in a way foreign to most of us. We can all think of people who seem tuned into a spiritual frequency we can't seem to access. They help light our way, the wise men, the Anna's, the Simeon's of history and our present. We also possess the ability to reflect Christ's light to those around us. Somehow the light of Christ reflected by our lives is more readily accessible than a direct encounter with divine light.

Theologian Paul Hanson writes, "Affirmation that light will ultimately prevail in a situation so bleak as to threaten to extinguish the human spirit can be dismissed as utopian only by those who have not experienced the dark moment when all human resources have been exhausted. The figure of Job stands tall in the Bible as one of those who knew such a moment. From the deep darkness of his suffering he burst forth unexpectedly with a similar affirmation: 'For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.' With similar defiance, hunted Christians in the catacombs maintained their lives of prayer and worship, black slaves in antebellum United States sang of Elijah's chariot swinging low to carry them to freedom, Jewish prisoners in concentration camps painted butterflies on the walls of their cells, Dutch Calvinists gathered in defiance of Nazi orders in memorial services honoring their martyrs, and Oscar Romero, with the sights of his assassins' rifles trained upon his heart, raised the host and thus offered both the bread of Christ and his own life as a sacrifice to God."

We celebrate Epiphany as that moment in history when Christ's light broke into our dark world. But we still anticipate the day when our eyes will be opened, when all nations and rulers will see and be drawn to this most glorious light. We all long for that day when God's light will be fully revealed to us and to our world. For now we are grateful for Epiphany. The light of Christ has indeed come into our world. Let our hearts rejoice always over the light this baby's birth heralds. But let us also anticipate that time to come, when our spiritual senses become attuned to the reality our faith has always known.

*dog.com; dummies.com; national geographic news
**canine science website

Dogs can detect cancer in humans. Scientists t

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