The sweet smell of incense
This is the third in a series of short reflections on our communion liturgy, in which the insights of several writers will be shared. This series will help us to lay a firmer hold on what it is we do together on Sunday night.
f you’ve joined us on a Sunday night, you’ll know that at two points during our liturgy we light incense, but other than seeing this as a kind of generally “religious” ritual you may not have much sense of why we would do this.
For anyone reading this who has not yet joined in with us in worship, I should explain that we have an urn sitting on the corner of the communion table. At the gathering and then again as we sing the Sanctus – the “Holy, holy, holy Lord,” which is part of every communion liturgy – we add grains of incense and produce fairly significant clouds of smoke.
This is actually a powerfully biblical act. In the Hebrew scriptures, there are detailed instructions having to do with offering incense. For instance, in Exodus we read that, “Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come.” (Ex 30:7-8)
In the Gospel according to Luke, it is this act of offering daily incense that brings Zechariah – the father of John the Baptist – to the temple on the day when he is met by the angel of God who tells him that he and Elizabeth are to expect a son.
Also in the Christian New Testament, the Book of Revelation includes several references to incense, which generally have to do with holiness and with prayer.
Insense is a potent, even pungent, symbol, but one that is as susceptible to abuse or trivialization as is any other symbol. There is a strong stream in the scriptures critical of turning this act of offering incense into a meaningless ritual act. For instance, in the writings of Isaiah the following words are written:
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations –
I cannot bear your evil assemblies. (Is 1:13)
When we use incense, it is a conscious evocation of two biblical teachings. At the beginning of the liturgy, the guiding scripture is found in the Book of Psalms – “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2) – while its use during the sanctus is meant to recall us to the original setting of that hymn in the writings of Isaiah, where we’re told that in the prophet’s vision of the heavens “the temple was filled with smoke.”
In his book Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner offers a most wonderful reflection on the use of incense in worship. As this section of his book opens, Buechner has just been writing about his experiences worshiping during an academic term at St Barnabas Church near Wheaton College in Illinois:
They also used incense at Saint Barnabas. They censed the open pages of the Gospel before they read from it, and even in the midst of a Midwestern October heat wave, the church was suddenly filled with Christmas. The hushed fragrance of it, the thin haze of it, seemed to say that it is not just to our minds that God seeks to make himself known, because, whatever we may think, we are much more than just our minds, but to our sense of touch and taste too, to our seeing and hearing and smelling the air whether it is incense that the air is laden with or burning leaves or baking bread or honest human sweat. “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” says the 34th Psalm, and it is not just being metaphorical.
Buechner’s reflections say better than I ever could why we would use something like incense, but again, it is so important to know why we use any symbol. May we always keep that in view, and may our prayers always be set before God like incense.