What Incense Is For

Reflection 6th November 2011
As I first began to study theology, my friends were the Jesuits. I had been a Methodist. I had only ever been into one catholic Church in my life. One day, I went to a funeral with one of them. The the usual practice was followed, and the coffin was sprinkled with holy water. I said to my friend ‘What superstitious magic!! What’s all this about holy water?!!” My friend said ‘Well, its baptism water.’ That was all.

Now, skip forward from 1976 to 1991. I have been learning about Christian initiation and the recovery of baptism as the most important thing in a person’s life. This is a wonder to me. I enter again into the meaning of my own baptism. What was done for me when I was four months old, I now understand. I begin to live into the meaning of what it is to be plunged (baptized) into Christ’s death. I begin to understand that the process of dying, entombment and rising characterises all life. I begin to enjoy the symbolism of water.

I begin to reflect on funerals as ‘Baptismal’ occasions. Instead of metaphorically being baptized into Christ’s death, a person who has died has un-metaphorically been baptized into Christ’s death, and just as in life we hope for the resurrection of the dead as the sign of the Reign of Christ, so in death we die, in the hope of the Resurrection. I begin to talk about this at funerals, and, wait for it, to sprinkle coffins with baptismal water. What in 1976 struck me as magic, is now the most sensible thing in the world to do!

I share this story with you because today we will be using incense. We will not do this every Sunday, but on special days. There is about as much conversation about the value of incense as there is about the use of holy water. So like the use of holy water, the use of incense needs some explanation.

First of all, like all symbols, the use of incense does not just say ‘one thing’. What we experience with incense is an experience of sight and smell. Smell is not often a feature of religious symbolism, except for perhaps people’s enjoyment of the perfume of flowers. So incense is, in itself, fun because it introduces the olfactory sense into the worship of God. We can worship God with our noses!

But this introduces the controversial aspect of the use of smell. People say ‘Well all this symbolism is decoration for the fact that in the days when people did not wash much incense was used to cover the body odour of the people, and so make it possible to be together in large numbers.’

So the argument goes ‘If that is all it was meant to do, and we don’t need to do that now, because personal hygiene is better, why do it?’

My counter argument has to do with curry. The spices in curry are designed to hide the flavour of rotten meat. The reason that spices were so valued, once they were discovered in Europe, was that it was possible to eat rotten meat (before refrigeration) whereas previously it was not. Does that mean that we do not enjoy the taste of curry now, for the sheer enjoyment of the flavour, even though we have refrigeration?

The anti-Christians do it to us too about Christmas. They say ‘The 25th December is a pagan feast representing the winter solstice, the return of the light. Christians borrowed it. So this day has not really anything to do with Jesus.’ Well if Jesus were not ‘the Light of the World’ and ‘Ruler of the stars of night’, then perhaps they might have a point. But just because the pagans misunderstood the true meaning of the solstice, and attributed it to the Sun-god, does that invalidate a Christian appropriation of this day to represent the coming into the world of the Son-of-God? I don’t think so.

Incense is also very popular these days in the form of incense sticks and oils. The secular world knows the value of the olfactory sense in daily life. Why not in Church life?

So a trans-signification of the use of incense is for me not a problem. I love the smell and the visual sensation of it for religious reasons, apart from the ‘covering up of body odour’ which was perhaps a prime use of incense in the beginning.

But there are three other things I want to say about why I love incense. First is the visual display of smoke. In Australia, we have become used on public occasions to being accompanied by an aboriginal ‘smoking ceremony’. This ceremony is a symbol of cleansing. This is true too if incense. The astringent quality of the smoke symbolises the ‘cleansing with hyssop’ that is needed for the worshipers to offer true worship to God. When we use incense in Church we make visible the words that we pray when we say ‘cleanse the thoughts of our hearts, that we may perfectly love you’ . These prayers are also made visible in the smoke as it rises during the great prayer of thanksgiving (When we will be using it today). Just as we light candles at our votive candle stand, to make visible and enduring our prayers, so the smoke of incense makes visible and somewhat enduring our prayers at the offertory.
The smell is another thing. The Apostle Paul talks of a Christians’ life as an offering to God, like a ‘sweet smelling savour’. Newly baptised Christians would have been (and in an increasing number of places still are) anointed with perfumed oil, and at Easter, this smell would have permeated the whole Church. Their offering of themselves to God in Christ is represented by their perfume. So too with the incense. We offer this perfume as a sign that ‘We offer ourselves to You as a living sacrifice’.

All this for me enriches the experience of worship. I am for rich worship. I can not see the value in impoverished worship. The Reformation removed the visual riches from churches so that people would be directed into hearing as their main organ for apprehending God. This is still true. But Anglicans have embraced all five senses as means to receiving and offering to God. I’m for that.

The last thing that I think is important about incense is the physicality involved in its production. Last week we taught Sven (who will be in charge of it with Neil) how to light the coals so that we actually get smoke, and not imagined smoke! I loved the mixture of joy and fear on his face as he lit the coals for the first time. Here is an activity in Church for boys! I am glad of the opportunity to have ‘boy stuff’ in Church. If I weigh this up against some opposition because, as I know, some people react to the smoke, I think I am coming down on the side of letting the boys worship, with ‘boy type’ stuff in Church.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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