March 16, 2016

The Senses, Memory, and Who We Are

We are blessed to be able to hear, see, taste, touch and smell. In the season of Easter, we are reminded that the Paschal Mystery is not limited to what we believe. Through the engagement of all our senses, we grow in the knowledge of who we are: both as the Church and unique individuals who follow the risen Christ.


Anyone who keeps houseplants has seen the dramatic transformation that takes place when a drooping, thirsty plant responds to a good, deep drenching. To witness the revival of an organism moving from parched longing to renewed lushness is to be reminded that our own bodies need water to live. At the Great Vigil of Easter, we welcome our newest siblings in faith as they abandon death through the spiritual drenching of baptism. The mighty cloud of witnesses sings with us, as Alleluias peal forth in celebration of love's victory over death. This song rings in our ears throughout the great 50 days, as the same waters of new birth play upon our upturned faces at the start of every Eastertide celebration.


One of the ways I express love is by preparing and sharing delicious food that my loved ones can enjoy in abundance. In this act of love, I receive far more than I could possibly give.

Invariably, someone we hoped would be with us is absent from the table. Afterwards, they must hear about the taste and sight of the food as described by one who was there. After the feast is finished, all we can say is "We missed you!" or, "You should've been there." They hear all about the delicious food, but if they cannot taste it for themselves, they have missed out – and, in missing them, we are sad.

The eighth verse of Psalm 34 famously invites us to "Taste and see that the Lord is good." It is not enough to listen to God's goodness, or to imagine it. We need to taste it for ourselves.

We can only do this if we show up, sit down, and dig in. This psalm goes on to describe God's mercy, forgiveness, tenderness, and loving responsiveness. This is the food of God's love. The feasting to which we are called begins with pulling up a chair and choosing to "eat." We do this by loving fully, compassionately, selflessly – as God loves us.

These deeply sumptuous flavors make up the Paschal Feast itself. Taste. See. Know these flavors first hand, and be filled with gratitude: for in the great suffering and death of his beloved Son, God spared no expense to set this feast before us.

The best and only response is for us to come – taste, see, and be filled.


We have a fundamental, biological need for touch. In the nineteenth century, babies in foundling hospitals died by the thousands even though they were fed, kept clean and sheltered from danger. They died because they were not cradled, touched and held. We too wither and decline without the loving touch of others. The gift of touch is necessary for life. But do we ever consider God's desire to be touched by us? If not, perhaps we should.

In anticipation of the Easter sacraments, those preparing for initiation experience rituals that can only be accomplished by human touch. In the Signing of the Senses, the cross is gently traced upon the forehead, eyes, lips, hands, shoulders, heart and feet of the catechumen. At the Easter Vigil, a warm embrace welcomes the neophyte, still wet from the waters of new birth. Remember that during those long months of anticipation, study and prayer; the newest members of our household need to be touched and nurtured. They need our encouragement. They are not unlike the little ones in the foundling hospitals. Nor are we.

More than we may realize, we are like those weak and vulnerable orphaned children struggling to survive. Yet we can easily underestimate the healing, restorative power that waits at our own fingertips. We can help each other to know God's loving touch by touching one another. In doing so, we answer the longing of the One who longs for our touch.


Incense is undeniable in it's power to evoke, comfort and inspire. We incense nearly everything on Christmas Eve. Billows of smoke surround the Paschal Candle during the chanting of the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil. In the funeral liturgy, the body of the deceased is slowly, lovingly incensed above the strains of the Song of Farewell at the Final Commendation. Intimately connected, all of these create some of the most beloved ritual moments of our faith. They remind us that we are bound together in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Oil of Chrism bears a fragrance I strongly associate with the elated relief of the neophytes. It comes with the first course of the Paschal Feast. The sweet balsam reminds me of the shimmering faces of friends who have made their journey into the Church. The night of their arrival overflows with that lovely, heady fragrance of Chrism. The only scent that I find more evocative is that of incense.

I can walk into an empty church several hours after a funeral has been celebrated, and the lingering scent of incense moves me. Suddenly I am flooded with feelings of love, familiarity, and deep gratitude for my faith. When the thurifer enters the darkened church on the night of the Easter Vigil, I am moved to those same emotions. Memory (activated by the senses) gives us our identity… our sense of who we are.

Occasionally I will pass a woman on the street who is wearing the same perfume my grandmother used to wear. Though grandma has been dead for almost 30 years, the fragrance makes my head turn, and I am briefly transported back to her dear presence. I am reminded of her laughter, her singing. The Easter gifts of incense and sacred Chrism accomplish this too, because they fill my heart and memory with thoughts of the God who loves me most of all.


The Easter sacraments lead us into sublime encounter with God through the senses, reminders that our own bodies are sacred and alive. Each of our bodies is a precious, unique miracle. Flesh, sinew, skin and bone – all of these contain nerves that invite us to sense chill and pain, warmth and pleasure. The same senses that bless us with the vibrancy of youth also humble us with the vulnerability of advancing age. While our bodies remind us that we will eventually die, our faith reminds us that, with Christ, we must die if we are to rise. (Romans 6:4) Throughout life, we live and move and sense in these earthly bodies; brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh, in whom God became one of us.

Janèt Sullivan Whitaker
Janèt Sullivan Whitaker
Director of Music and Liturgy, St. Joan of Arc parish

Janèt Sullivan Whitaker is a lifelong veteran of active music ministry in the Diocese of Oakland, California. She holds a BA in music, an MTS in Liturgical Studies, and is currently the full-time director of music and liturgy at St. Joan of Arc parish in San Ramon. In addition to being a composer and recording artist, Janèt is also a cantor, pianist, arranger, percussionist, workshop leader and retreat leader. For the last 14 years she has served on the catechetical music staff for the One Bread, One Cup Summer Liturgical Leadership Conferences.

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