Sunday, March 30, 2008

What’s with all the incense?

by Samuel Torvend

As we were finishing the entrance hymn on Easter Sunday, my sister, her husband, and their five-year-old son slipped into the pew next to me. My nephew, Rex, stood on the pew so that he could see his friend, Stephen, twirling the thurible, the metal container filled with a burning coal and heaped with incense pebbles. “I can see the smoke,” whispered Rex, “but, Uncle Sam, where’s the fire that makes it?” Well, this was a great question from a curious soon-to-be kindergartner. If there’s smoke, there must be fire. I whispered in his ear that a coal, much like one of his father’s barbeque briquettes, is set on fire with a match that makes it sizzle and turn into a hot ember. The incense that is added to the coal creates both the smoke and the smell. His eyes widened and he said, “Oh, that is way cool … and it doesn’t fly out and hit us.”

While his son found the use of incense fascinating if not wonderfully dangerous, Frank, his father, seemed less impressed. At dinner that afternoon he said: “You all at St. Paul’s really like to do it up big; you know: lots of ceremony.” Let’s be clear: there was no condescending tone in his voice, but I did wonder, Does he think it’s just silly: the bowing, the genuflecting, and, then, those many clouds of Easter incense? And then he asked, “I thought it had something to do with your prayers rising to God … Isn’t that right?” Big point to Frank who could have been quoting Psalm 141: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands an evening sacrifice.” On smoke rising from burning incense as symbol of prayer “rising” to God, he was right on the money.

And yet at St. Paul’s on this Easter Sunday, the altar table, the bread and wine, a newly-baptized baby, the Easter candle, the worshipping assembly and the ministers of the Mass were all incensed. Why all that incensing of food, candle, and people? The answer rests in the ancient past of Christianity. It was not until the fourth century that Christians began to incense people and significant objects in their worship. While one reads in the Bible of incense being burned during worship, the practice of incensing people probably derives from the Roman imperial practice of honoring political elites, such as the emperor and his court, with burning incense. Where you see and smell incense, a bigwig is not far behind. Oh, but here is the interesting twist that begins to take place in Christian worship: the pagan imperial practice of using incense was welcomed by Christians but turned on its head: what honored only the elites who sat at the top of the social pyramid was now turned toward ordinary people and ordinary things. Infants, deacons, women, widows, priests, the poor, men, children – anyone and everyone who enters into the Christian assembly is honored with a practice that had been reserved only for social VIPs. In essence the Christian practice proclaimed that each and every person was worthy – worthy to be honored with incense – since each one is a child of God, marked with an eternal dignity, and joined to the body of Christ, the great high priest. Thus, the incensing of all the people, their table, and the food they receive as the Body and Blood of Christ would now proclaim a status-reversal: all these – not just a few – but all these are holy. And so, here, in this place, each person is to be honored with fire and fragrance at one’s birth into the Christian community (baptism), as one is nourished weekly in the Christian communion (Eucharist), and at one’s death in the midst of the community (the Christian funeral).

I would agree with my nephew: that is way cool.

Samuel Torvend is a member of St. Paul's and professor of the history of Christianity at Pacific Lutheran University.

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