February 10, 2019
The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
(Isaiah 6:1-2, 3-8; Luke 5:1-11)
There is a story, floating around that was told in Roman Catholic seminary, that the flamboyant, bourbon-drinking, coke-snorting, smart-aleck actress from the 30’s and 40’s, Tallulah Bankhead, who claimed to be a “recovering Mormon”, who attended one Christmas mid-night Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York sitting in a pew waiting for Mass to start. It would seem she had been partying a bit before she arrived. As the procession came down the aisle - when the Cardinal passed in his finest vestments, with an altar-boy in front of him swinging a censer full of burning incense - through very bleary eyes, Tallulah took one look at him and with that deep gravelly voice of hers shouted "Darling, your dress is divine, but your purse is on fire!"
It has been a standing joke for seminarians for years. I have also heard it told in slight different variations. Who knows if there is any truth to it, but it has always been a fun story.
Given our Epistle reading speaks about incense today and also given that we choose to use incense for every Mass in our little chapel, I thought it would be good to talk about incense, why it is used and some history and origin. As many of you are aware, I discuss the topic in the booklet in your pews about the Mass, so some of this may be a refresher and maybe something new.
And as you know, each Sunday there is a small prayer the priest or deacon prays immediately before the reading of the Gospel. They originate from the words of today’s Epistle reading.
In the temple rituals of the ancient world, incense played a symbolic and a practical role. Because it was rare, expensive and would be completely consumed by fire, it was considered a suitable sacrifice to the gods. Priests and people hoped that their prayers would rise to heaven like the great clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. Then there was the practical dimension of burning incense: In temples where animals were sacrificed and their carcasses burned, incense helped mask the stench.
Both the Old and the New Testaments tell us that incense is pleasing to God. In the book of Exodus, God commands Moses to build a small, gold-plated altar specifically for the burning incense every morning and evening (Exodus 30:1-8). In St. Luke's Gospel, we read that Zachariah the priest was about to offer incense in the Temple in Jerusalem when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to announce that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son, the future St. John the Baptist (see Luke 1:8-13). And the book of Revelation describes a scene in heaven in which an angel burned incense in a censer, "and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints ... before God" (Revelation 8:3-4).
In the Old Testament, use of incense is found starting in the Torah worship regulations. There are two main descriptions of incense ritual. It is important to remember that in identifying the specifics of incense in the Bible we have a problem of translation. We are not sure in every case what exactly the ingredient being described was, but have to take an educated guess.
First is the command to construct the altar of incense in Exodus 30:1-10.
Like most of the ritual implements it is to be made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. Interestingly, it also has horns and two rings so that it can be carried on a pole, similar to the Ark of the Covenant. Its location was to be in front of the veil or curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Burning incense here would create a cloud of smoke and fire that would further communicate the holiness of God. This may be the basis for some of the Biblical imagery of God residing in clouds of darkness. (Psalm 18:11) The two frequent usages listed are morning and evening offerings. The incense was to be done with the temple lights. There was also a regulation on the type of incense, the priest could not use any “unholy” incense, but only that which had been commanded. This altar of incense also had to be ritually purified on Yom Kippur along with many of the other Temple objects. This altar was also used on Yom Kippur as part of the ritual process for the high priest to be able to enter the inner sanctum. (Leviticus 16:11-14)
Second is Exodus 30:34-38 which gives the formula for the specific incense to be used. The mixture is made of equal parts of four ingredients: Stacte (staktē) or gum resin. Onycha (on'i-ka) - what the onycha of antiquity actually was cannot be determined with certainty any longer. Operculum from sea snails is one possible identification. Galbanum which comes from a Persian plant called ferula gummosa. And lastly frankincense. This formula is considered holy, and originally it was forbidden for it to be used for any other purpose other than Temple ritual. It is not to be reduced to common usage.
Later in the Old Testament incense as worship is used in the Psalms as a metaphor for prayer (Ps 141:2) and again as shorthand for the worship of God.
Because incense’s religious usage was exclusive to the Temple, there are few mentions of it in the New Testament. Incense is used in Luke 1:9 in a similar manner as the Old Testament, to describe Temple worship in general. Showing the cross cultural nature of incense there is also the example of the wise men who bring a gift of frankincense (Matt 2:11). What the wise men believed about Jesus exactly is not known, but it was common in Persia to see kings as divine and treat them as such, with incense being a common gift to a king. The only other occurrences are in Revelation where it takes on a metaphorical meaning. In Revelation incense represents the prayer of the saints (Rev 5:8, 8:3-5). Here the Angel offers up the prayers of the saints and then fills his censer with fire from the altar. When thrown on the earth this fire caused earthquakes and lightening, marking the beginning of the trumpet judgments.
There is little connection between early Christian incense usage and Old Testament ritual. In fact, it took several centuries for the early Church to adopt incense. One of the more common Roman religious usages was worship, and in particular in worship of the Emperor. This association with emperor worship, and this being the primary manner in which early Christians suffered persecution, created a strong aversion to incense for the Church. Etheria, of whom little is known, was said to be a nun from present-day France who in 381 began a lengthy pilgrimage to the Holy Land, tells us that incense was used in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
Around the 5th century, after the peace of the Church under Constantine, Christians began to feel more comfortable with incense, and as the bitter memory of incense's link to the era of persecution faded, the Church in the West took up the custom, too, censing everything that was considered holy -- the bread and wine, the altar, the crucifix, the book of the Gospels, the celebrant of the Mass and the sacred ministers and the congregation.
Much of the initial usage was connected to funeral processions, the first recorded being 311AD. This funerary use developed early into processions for saint’s relics, as well as being burned in honor of saint’s tombs by at least the fifth century. Although this later use was derived from burning of incense before people in honor while alive. During the time of St. Ambrose (340 - 397 AD) incense was only really used in the liturgy to perfume the church. This fumigatory usage was widespread by the end of the 4th century. Other early usages follow, such as processing with incense before Bishops or the Gospel book as a sign of honor similar to Roman dignitaries.
The earliest religious usage of incense in Christian worship seems to date to St. Ephraim the Syrian in the late 4th century and represents a transition period. This religious usage started in the Eastern rites and eventually spread throughout Western ritual as well. By the end of the 6th century, at least in the East, incense was being widely used as part of worship. Evidence of this comes from the Seventh Ecumenical council which specifically mentions incense as an acceptable “offering” to images of the Cross, and the Gospel Book, and other “holy objects”. It is not too long after this that it takes on a greater liturgical integration of censing the altar, priest, people, and oblations that are found in later rites. In the 9th century, Bishop Hincmar of Reims ordered all priests in his diocese to have censer and incense for Gospel procession and Offertory, but it was not until the 14th century in Rome that the Gospel book itself being censed became custom.
Additionally, Jewish Chaburah meals used incense, at least as burning spices, as part of the common culture, and gave it religious domestic meaning. Possibly this means incense was used at the Last Supper.
The mystical meaning of incense - by its burning it symbolizes the zeal with which the faithful should be animated; by its sweet fragrance, the odor of Christian virtue; by its rising smoke, the ascent of prayer before the throne of the Almighty. As St. John tells us in the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation: "The smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended before God from the hand of the Angel."
Also, incense creates a cloud. A cloud is a symbol for God the Father. For example at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5) a cloud appears and from it comes the Voice of God. In Acts 1:8 Jesus enters a cloud. Also in Exodus 13:22, the people are led by a pillar of cloud; and in Exodus 40:34 the cloud settled on the meeting tent and the glory of the Lord filled it. Thus the cloud of incense should remind us of God whose presence is revealed by a cloud.
The use of incense is a beautiful example of the wisdom of our Church, which adapts to our own purposes all that is good in every creed, all that will typify the spirit with which she wished her children to be animated, all that will aid them to attain to true fervor, all that will add solemnity to the worship which she offers to God.
Incense has several purposes in Christian liturgy. Honor to God - following the Old Testament pattern - honor to people and holy objects, symbol of purification, cleansing, or blessing, symbol of the prayers of the saints rising to God following Revelation, symbol of our prayers during Mass rising to God, engage all the senses in worship though the addition of smell, add a nice aroma to worship and to purify and cleanse areas and objects of evil influence.
When most objects are censed they are commonly done with double swings. Each “swing” of the thurible is two short swings with an intermediate pause. Traditionally the number of these double swings varies from one to three depending on the thing being censed. There are rubrics for the number of swings. Some examples are, but not all inclusive:
3 Double-Swings: A Bishop. Also the exposed Sacrament, a relic of the True Cross, and a bambino (Christmas infant).
2 Double-Swings: Canons in their Cathedral, Principal Priests of a Church, All Priests in Parish Churches. Palms on Palm Sunday, the Book of the Gospels. The image/statues of a patron saint on their feast day. The Advent/Christmas wreath.
1 Double-Swing: Deacons and any servers being incensed individually, as well as the congregation at the second censing of the Mass.
And there you my smoking habit laid out for you. I’ve been on the patch, but incense is hard to break!!
Let us pray.
In today’s gospel, we read how Jesus called Simon and Andrew, the first of his disciples. We pray that young men and women hear and respond generously to the Lord’s call to become ministers for the church and proclaim his message of hope, love and salvation. We pray to the Lord.
Through our baptism, we are also called by Jesus to be fishers of men for his sake. We pray that in our lives, our words and our actions we lead others to Christ’s message and belief in God, our creator and loving Father. We pray to the Lord.
Tomorrow Monday, February 11th, has been nominated as World Day for the Sick. We pray for all those who are sick, and particularly for those with life threatening illnesses. We also include in our prayers all family members and helpers who care for the sick with such loving care and patience. We pray to the Lord
For those who do not feel loved, who do not have the companionship of family or friends, that they may know God’s constant love. We pray to the Lord.
That when we see and smell the incense during Mass, that we become aware of the purification of the sanctuary and the rising up of our prayers. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, we turn to you, confident that your love is greater than our weakness. May we always be faithful to you. Father, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Lead us closer to yourself as we make these prayers. Loving God, your faithfulness has no bounds, let your hand guide your people, who bring their prayers in faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor - St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA