Sunday, November 12, 2023

Another incense post. . .

Let my prayer rise before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.  Psalm 141

Smells have almost become an alien force in modern life.  We spend great effort and money to remove any odors from our homes, bodies, cars, and lives.  Indeed, we sanitize our lives away from even pleasant aromas like food.  So it is no wonder that incense has become a symbol without any local application in our lives.  Sure, there are some churches where incense is featured prominently but even there an apologetic covers incense as if it were an offense rather than a blessing.  It is really no different than prayer.  The bells that once cried out to the community the hours of prayer have fallen silent.  Imams sing out a call to prayer where Christians have become largely silent.  It is not as common as once it was to see people at restaurants or with lunch boxes and their heads bowed in prayer.  Prayer has become an individual and private activity and therefore more and more invisible to other Christians and to the world around them.

Incense, the Biblical smell of holiness, is not simply foreign to our modern Protestant world but offensive.  Once it might have been seen as curiously strange or even exotic but now it is an intruder into the sacrosanct and insulated world of the individual.  Incense in Scripture is a visible and real (odor) of God's holiness and of the unseen prayers of a people appealing to Him for mercy.  Incense is real enough but prayer hard to point to and so the smoke and smell makes the prayer as real to our senses as prayer is to our hearts.  That is the Biblical perspective -- material things, though subordinate to the spiritual, are the signs and means by which we know and participate in the spiritual.  That is the basis of sacramental theology.  God works through material things to bestow His promise of grace and the fruits of Christ's redeeming work.

An example lies in the Roman practice of burning a pinch of incense before an image of the Emperor.  Though it would seem a small and even insignificant thing to us, the early Christians chose martyrdom rather than to offer incense before the Emperor.  The practice had a context.  Worship belonged only to the Lord and nothing that was afforded to God could be offered to a mortal man -- no matter how powerful or how profound the consequences of the refusal to do so.  We would today likely complain more about the incense than the small token of devotion it symbolized when burnt before the image of the Emperor.

Perhaps prayer itself has become an abstract thing and not as concrete as a scent in the nose or a waft of smoke to the eye.  If that is the case, we are the poorer for it.  Israel was commanded to pray and commanded to offer incense to God.  It was the true and spiritual worship God desired of the faithful.  Likewise repentance was not simply a spiritual posture of the heart but an outward and physical action.  It had a material side to it.  So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm. (Joel 2:13)  In addition, offerings were not clean and tidy pieces of paper or plastic cards to make electronic transfer of funds.  The offerings were bloody and messy.  It was as abhorrent to the Lord that offerings were made convenient to the offerer as they would be offensive if offered without faith and devotion.  For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery for burnt offering; I will direct their work in  truth, And will make with them an everlasting covenant. (Isa 61:8)  I hate, I despise your feast days, And I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. (Amos 5:21-23)

The ritual was not bad nor had it failed.  The material was not evil nor was it inadequate.  What contaminated the prayer and the offering was the emptiness of the heart praying with words without trust and giving material gifts without thanksgiving.  You will not ever find Jesus condemn the command to pray or the incense God required as part of the worship.  It was presumed that these were good because God commanded them.  The heavenly liturgy of the Revelation of St. John indicates that neither prayer nor incense ends but both are eternal.  (Rev. 5:8)   The incense is no mere symbol in Revelation but the clouds of incense “are the prayers of the saints.”  The Messianic age is marked by incense and prayer, offering and thanksgiving:  “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; In every place incense shall be offered to My name, And a pure offering; For My name shall be great among the nations,” Says the LORD of hosts. (Mal 1:11)

Sadly, we have learned to question the ritual, be suspicious of the material, and elevated the spiritual as if these were not related.  The teaching of the early fathers reminds us that the body will inwardly do what the body does outwardly.  That is why kneeling, genuflection, bowing, etc., remain postures that display on the outside what is going on inside.  I wish Lutherans could get over their Protestant weakness to dismiss the external.  Our churches have become as sanitized as our lives -- blank canvases without beauty and sterile atmospheres whose only odor is either bleach or coffee -- neither of which are mentioned in Scripture or associated with faithful worship. I am sure some will complain that I mentioned incense at all or connected the smoke and the smell to prayer.  Perhaps they are also whispering under their breath that God went too far in this as well.  If I would ever be aware of it, perhaps the heavenly presence with its robust odor of holiness might make me snicker at those who found incense alien to their prayers even as they rejected the corporate and learned prayers of the offices as less salutary than the spontaneous and individual creations.  Alas, the Lord will not allow any time for such folly what with all the thuribles to fill and the choirs prayerfully singing Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth.

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