Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Increasing Allergies Among Lutherans
The liturgical use of incense is well documented in Scripture. Who would deny that in the Jewish Temple there was an altar of incense (and the amount of incense was profound in comparison to the couple of puffs of smake found in Churches today). Read blessed John's vision of the Heavenly Kingdom and you find it is full of fragrant smoke which represents the prayers of the saints. Its use in Christian worship flowed from the history in Jewish worship.
Incense symbolizes the Church's offering of prayer and our reverence to God. Psalm 141 makes abundantly clear the powerful imagery of incense. ["Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice."] So what's the big deal? Why do so many Lutherans get their noses out of joint over a little incense?
Could it be that its association with Roman Catholocism is more of the objection than the smoke of incense? Our people can tolerate things that do not directly affect them (Pastors wearing vestments, the sign of the cross by some, chanting, and, perhaps, even the Sanctus bell. They draw the line at incense. That might be one explanation.
Are some folks allergic to incense? I am sure there are such folks. People with asthma may be effected by it if they breath a lot of it into their lungs. How many folks are legitimately allergic? Not as many as those who just plain do not like it in. Perhaps this is an aesthetic issue but I wonder if it might be also a spiritual implications. Lutherans, by the way, used incense regularly on Sunday morning in many places right up through the 18th century.
BEFORE you jump on me for ramming something down the throats of unwilling Lutherans, we use incense regularly only on the Wednesday Evening Prayer services of Advent and Lent for which we also have service opportunities when incense is not used (Compline on Mondays and the Eucharist on Thursdays). The incense is forty feet away from most folks and the HVAC is turned off so that it does not spread the "holy smoke." So far it has not reduced the attendance at these services.
It would seem that are more salient arguments FOR the use of incense than against. In the Old Testament, God commanded His people to offer incense in worship. Pure incense is the resin from certain trees found in limited areas of the Middle East like Ethiopia and Eritrea. In ancient times it was obtained only at great expense. In the book of Exodus (Chapter 30), God commanded Moses to make an altar of acacia wood for the burning of incense. Aaron is to burn incense morning and evening. Moses is given special instructions for making the incense to be used exclusively for the worship of God (Exodus 30:34-38). One of the many ingredients given in God's list was frankincense. Among the gifts of the Magi given to the baby Jesus was frankincense--a gift worthy of a king.
Incense is a symbol for the prayers of God's people. "Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. . . ." -Psalm 141:2 The people would pray outside of the Holy of Holies while the priest inside offered incense upon the golden altar. “And the whole multitude of people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” -Luke 1:10
In the Old Testament, God established a formal, liturgical type of worship. Historic, formal liturgical Christian worship services have sometimes incorrectly been accused of being derived from Judaism. In fact, they are derived directly from the New Testament---from the worship in Heaven that the Apostle John reveals to us in the book of Revelation. "An angel came and stood at the altar, with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden Altar before the Throne of God; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the Saints from the hand of the angel before God." -Revelation 8:3-4
In the Bible, clouds are often used as a sign of God's presence. Another characteristic of incense is that it forms a cloud. A cloud in the Bible often reveals God's presence. The Israelites were led by the pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:22). A cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled it (Exodus 40:34). During the Transfiguration of Christ, a cloud appears and the Voice of God is heard from it (Matthew 17:5). In the book of Acts, Jesus is taken up into a cloud (Acts 1:8).
The smell of incense in a home in Bible times signaled the impending visit of someone of importance. In ancient times incense was used to sweeten and purify the air before an important visitor arrived (only an important visitor, because incense was very expensive, and so could only be used on special occasions). Christ taught us that He is in the midst of us wherever two or three are gathered in His Name (Matthew 18:20). Who is a more important visitor than our Creator? Our Lord may not be physically visible, but He has promised to be present. The beautiful aroma of incense reminds us to be aware of His presence. "And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savor." -Ephesians 5:2
Our Lord was buried wrapped in incense. Incense was used when sacrifices were made in the Old Testament. When our Lord died, no incense was burned. Instead, He was buried wrapped in incense. The aromatic clouds of incense we smell during our times of worship remind us that our Lord was sacrificed for our benefit. The Apostle Paul applies this same metaphor to us when he says that we are the aroma of Christ to God. Paul says that we are God's incense. His Gift, both to Himself, and to the world.
"For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish:
To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?" -II Corinthians 2:15,16 Quoted from www.prayerfoundation.org.
My point is this. Why does incense cause such a knee jerk reaction of rejection among our people? Is it that we truly have so many folks who are allergic? Is it that we are anti-Roman enough to say here is where we draw the line and show our Protestant side? Is it that we are so health conscious that we must remove anything that just might cause a problem? Is it that we do not like things that remind us of the mystery of God in the way that incense does? Is it that our personal taste (smoking or non-smoking) drives our response?
I have seen no literature to suggest that Lutherans are more prone to respiratory allergies than say the Roman Catholics or Orthodox (whose mounds of smoke make what I use look simply pitiful). I know that there is a great deal of anti-Roman sentiment among some Lutherans but thought this was more a product of a by-gone era than today. If we are so health conscious, why do we hug and kiss our friends or drink coffee in droves or pile up the plates at the pot lucks -- all things known to cause some health issues. If we disdain the mystery of God's presence among us in Word and Sacrament, then why are we Lutherans in the first place? If personal taste, then what might we sacrifice next on the altar of personal preference? Music? Sermons? Lessons from Scripture? Any move from the sitting position? Worship with other people?
Okay, I am being sarcastic. I just want to know. Why do Lutherans get so touchy when it comes to a puff of smoke? You tell me... I genuinely want an answer?