In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week I talked about some of the prayers of the offertory. Today I would like to turn our attention to a particular ritual of the offertory: the incense.
The use of incense during the liturgy has become a hallmark of “high church” worship, like chanting the prayers, devotion to Mary and the saints, using vestments, wearing birettas, and the like. Modern, “mainstream” Christians are apt to think of such things as eccentricities used by a rarified kind of their, perhaps slightly deviant, co-religionists. But nothing could be further form the truth. All of these things, with the exception, perhaps, of birettas, but including the use of incense, have been the norm in Christian worship, universally, since ancient times. The Church’s documentary heritage attests to this fact. So likewise in 2006 the Vatican announced that it had rediscovered the tomb of St. Paul the Apostle, beneath the high altar of the basilica erected in his honor in the 4th century, on the Ostian road, near the place where Paul was martyred. Within the tomb, along with fragments of bone and cloth and filigree, archaeologists discovered grains of incense.
And of course the use of incense in the corporate worship of God was not invented by Christians. The book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible, contains elaborate instructions for how incense was to be used in the liturgy of the Jewish temple.
In the liturgical use that we have inherited, incense is used during processions, and at shrines and stations on festal occasions. The altar is “censed” during the Magnificat when Evening Prayer is sung solemnly. And in the liturgy of the mass, incense is used at several places: at the beginning of mass the altar and the celebrant are censed, and again before the Gospel is sung, the book containing the Gospel is censed. And then again at the offertory, after the oblations of bread and wine, the matter of the sacrifice, have been brought forward and arranged on the altar, incense is again struck, and the oblations, the altar, the celebrant and other ministers, and the congregation are all censed.
But what is the significance of the use of incense? WHY do we use it? The first and most obvious answer is because it smells good. A general principle in worshiping God is that we ought to offer him the best and most beautiful of what we have. So in the Old Testament the first-fruits of the harvest were offered to God, the firstborn livestock, and animals without blemish. We have inherited this custom from our elder brethren, the Jews, and we offer to God the best and most beautiful of what we can afford. So our chalices and patens are made of skillfully-worked precious metals. Our vestments are finely embroidered silk. The music we sing is artfully arranged and euphonious. Even the words of our prayers are some of the most beautiful compositions of the English language. We don’t just say, “Thanks for the mass, God.” We say, “Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ,” etc.
We offer to God the best of what we have available, and we offer what is pleasing to the senses. Silk is pleasing to the touch. Gregorian melodies are pleasing to the ear. Precious metals are pleasing to the eye. And likewise incense – which is expensive, and comes from the resin of Boswellia trees, skillfully mixed with other flowers and herbs – is pleasing to the sense of smell. And this is one of the principle reasons Christians offer it to God in our corporate worship: because it is precious and beautiful.
But, as with everything else, its also symbolic. When the celebrant strikes incense at the offertory, he makes the sign of the cross over it, because the cross is the foundation and center of all Christian worship and sacrifice, and indeed the foundation and center of the whole Christian life. And the celebrant prays that God would bless and accept the incense. He says quietly:
“Through the intercession of St. Michael the Archangel, who stands at the right hand of the altar of incense, and of all the elect, may the Lord vouchsafe to bless this incense, and receive it as a sweet-smelling savour. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
And as he censes the altar, he is instructed to recite the words of Psalm 141 (vv. 1-3), which begins: “Let my prayer, O Lord, be set forth in thy sight as the incense: and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” And here we have the biblical foundation for the idea that the incense at mass is symbolic of our prayers “ascending up” to God as something pleasing and delightful.
Another dimension to the symbolism of burning incense at mass can be seen in the short prayer that the missal instructs the celebrant to recite as he hands the thurible back to the thurifer after censing the altar: “The Lord kindle in us the fire of his love, and the flame of eternal charity. Amen.” The burning coal inside the thurible thus symbolizes the love of God in our hearts, motivating all of our actions, and causing what we do to be well-pleasing to God – just as the coal in the thurible sets the incense alight, and causes it to ascend “up unto the Lord.”
There is another dimension to the iconography of incense which was eloquently expounded by Fr. Homer Rogers of blessed memory, who was for many years the rector of St. Francis, on Walnut Lane, and whom some of you knew. I will conclude with what Fr. Rogers said:
“Once upon a time, in a far away land, before the days of Air-wick and indoor plumbing, people’s houses would get musty, and the odours of cooked cabbage and garlic would cling to the walls and curtains, and on damp days a crowded house might smell like the locker room of a gymnasium. Folks discovered, probably at first by accident, that if they would burn certain fragrant resins and gums, the smoke would sweeten the air and make life indoors much more pleasant.
“However, since these aromatic resins and gums were rare and costly, they were saved for those occasions when company was coming. Thus it came to be that burning incense became a sign of somebody important coming to the house. You walk in, and smell incense, and say, ‘Who is coming?’
“Royalty and the aristocracy had incense burned before them on all public occasions. If you wished to honor a friend, you burned incense when he visited you.
“Incense was burned in temples and all places of public and private worship in honor of the God who was to visit the temple. It purified the place in anticipation of his visit. The Jews did this and the Christians took over the custom. ‘From the rising of the sun even unto to going down of the same, my Name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered in my name, and a pure offering; for my name shall be great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of Hosts.’ (Malachi 1:11)
“It is instructive to notice the places in the Church service at which incense is offered. On the entrance into the sanctuary, at the beginning of the Mass, the priest ‘censes’ the altar to prepare it for the coming of God on the altar. Then he himself is ‘censed’ by the deacon or thurifer because the priest himself is to become an instrument through which God acts in the service.
“The bread and wine are ‘censed’ at the offertory, because God is going to visit them and make them His habitation. Then the congregation is ‘censed’ for they are going to receive their communion – God is going to visit them. They further are due honor in their own right as the Mystical Body of Christ through which (with the priest) God acts to consecrate the Holy Sacrifice.
“At the moment of Consecration the bread and wine (becoming the Body and Blood of Christ) are again ‘censed’ by the thurifer, because God becomes present there.
“God is really acting through his priests. God is really present on our altars under the forms of bread and wine; God is really speaking to us through the reading of the Gospel, and finally God is really and actually present in the Christian who receives the Sacrament or hears His Word.
“Incense is not used merely because it is pretty, or because it smells sweet, or because we like ‘high church’ but rather because, as a living link with Christians and Jewish antiquity, it assures us that the early Christians believe as we believe, that when we gather together in His Name, God is in our midst, that we do not merely remember a dead Jew but have Communion with a living Christ, that we do not merely long for a heaven that is ‘up yonder’, or ‘in the sweet by and by’, but adore an Eternal Lord who is ‘right here and now.’
“It adds to our service an atmosphere of mystery – and well it might. For it signifies an invasion of the Eternal into time, of the Infinite All Holy into the midst of His people.
“So when incense is offered, it should properly awe and impress us, with the terrifying fact the imminent entrance of Him who flung the stars into space and who numbers the hairs of our heads, yet whose tender love is concerned with the sparrow’s fall, who willed to be laid in a manger and nailed to a cross that you and I might know His love for all eternity.
“Understanding its ancient meaning, as purification before the entrance of an important visitor, incense as the Church uses it is eloquent testimony and a vivid dramatization of the Church’s most cherished beliefs and vital experiences: God’s coming to man, really and actually, in man’s worship of God.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.