One of our members wrote this essay in Advent 2016, to help us reflect together on why we use incense – and bells, and music, and special clothes, and candles, and ritual gestures – to make our worship feel different from everyday life.
An Ode to Incense: Ritual Engagement in Contemporary Religion
When many people think of incense, they wonder what it’s for and often come up with the simplistic explanation that it is leftover paganism – that the smoke of the incense is supposed to get God to like you. That’s not it. Incense is not a bribe that prods God to pay more attention to our prayers than those of others.
God hears all prayers and God does not care if we have incense or not, or if we pray standing up or sitting down or kneeling, or if Mother Miranda has fancy new robes, or if we’re wearing church clothes or golf shorts, or if we have icons on the walls or nothing, or if our music is great or awful, or if we use fancy old English or modern English. None of that matters to God because God doesn’t have any trouble showing up and paying attention. Christ is present in the Eucharist however we perform it, because God does not have any problem keeping up God’s end of the bargain, or remembering God’s abiding love for us.
But we, in contrast, do often have difficulty remembering God’s abiding love for us. And we can have difficulty perceiving the presence of God in our lives. It is in the nature of human relationship with the divine, that the feeling of God, the experience of God, the knowledge of God does not follow the normal rules for determining existence: You can’t hold it, test it, touch it. Unlike video, religious experience is not on demand. This is the problem: how do we see, meet, and perceive God, who we believe never leaves us, but who can seem elusive at times? This perception problem is why we have sacraments.
Some definitions: Sacraments are visible signs and outward expressions of inward divine grace. They are mysteries. We enact liturgies to perform the sacraments, which are the visible signs of God’s work in our lives. Liturgy in Greek means public work, coming from laitos ‘people stuff,’ and ergos, ‘work.’ It was and is the most common word for taxes, civil service, or any kind of work that people do for the sake of common life as a community. God does not do liturgy. We do liturgy, for the purpose of helping us perform the sacred mysteries that are the visible signs of ineffable divine grace. The word sacred, at root, does not mean holy; it means put aside, reserved, separated from everything else, for the purpose or exclusive use of something. When we put something aside, and reserve it for the special use of our liturgies, we make it sacred.
When we are performing the liturgy for the sacrament of communion, Eucharist, we’re doing our part to perform the sacred mystery in which we meet God. We commune with God, we stand in the real presence of Christ, we are fed with the spiritual food of the most precious body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, and we become part of the mystical body of Christ which is the Church, the blessed company of all faithful people. All faithful people in ages past and all faithful people for ages yet to come stand in communion with God and with us, at the moment of Eucharist. This is an awesome, powerful, transformative sacred mystery. We cannot let it become humdrum just because we do it every week.
Communion is not an earth shattering experience every week – but it can be, now and then. When we are really paying attention, and when we are open and humble before its transformative power, it is a powerful reorientation to the world that leaves us changed at least a little bit, and with each week that we are changed, we are better able to live in imitation of Christ, if just a bit. Some of us come to church because we want the transformative experience of being, if only for a moment, in communion with God and the mystical body of Christ.
So, getting back to incense, the question is how – through our liturgies, through our common work – do we set up the situation so that we can all be really paying attention and really open and humble for that experience of transformation?
One answer is that we do everything we can possibly think of to make the experience of liturgies ‘sacred,’ that is different, set aside, not mundane, not humdrum. To make liturgy sacred we need to make it as different from normal everyday life as we possibly can. We can listen for bells at particular moments. We can kneel down, and stand up, and raise our arms, and cross ourselves – all sorts of calisthenics that we only do in church. We can have lots of candles. We can wear special church clothes. We can dress up Mother Miranda so that she does not look normal. Having her look different helps us remember that our friendly preacher mom lady is a priest ordained through the laying on of hands in a line of priests going through apostolic session all the way back to Jesus. We can have special music, special images, and special architecture. And we can have special smells.
Smell is a very powerful mnemonic device. Since we only smell incense in church, it provides powerful association that when we smell it were in a sacred space. Using it is an expression of our dear desire for closeness to God because it shows we are trying to make our liturgies sacred. It is a call to pay attention, so that when we perform the liturgies of the sacred mysteries of the sacraments we can all be open to experiencing the transformation and reorientation that comes through spending a moment in the real presence of Christ.