Incense and Divine Wrath

Last week at Higher Things incense was used during the last two Evening Prayer services. It was new for many of the kids there. For us, it smelled like Church usually does. The Higher Things staff had a nice description in their service booklet about why we use it. They emphasized the bodily nature of our faith and worship, along with the association of incense with Jesus, both at His birth and death, along with the anointing He received before His passion. They wrote, “When you smell incense, look for Jesus.” A pithy saying.

censing-in-church1Not long after I ran across the following article written by an Orthodox priest. It’s notable for two reasons: first, Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon speaks quite openly about the wrath of God, which many Orthodox priests and believers shy away from these days. He writes,

Having determined that repentant prayer alone turns away the divine wrath, we should also consider two ritual gestures in which such prayer may be expressed: the offering of incense and the devout raising of the hands. Since Holy Scripture regards both these elevations as symbols of the soul’s ascent to God. It is no wonder we sometime find them joined in a unified ritual.

Perhaps Psalm 141 (Greek 140) best illustrates this perception. This psalm, still chanted at every Vespers service in the Orthodox Church, has been the evening prayer of God’s People since the time it accompanied the Evening Sacrifice in the Temple.

I cite the psalm’s relevant verse in the economy of the Hebrew text:

“Let my prayer be constant, incense before Your face; the raising of my hands, the evening sacrifice.”

The only finite verb here (tikkon, “to be steady,” or “constant,” or “established”) is unexpected, perhaps. At first glance, few things seem less constant, less “steady” than an incense cloud; it can be kept constant only by an ongoing renewal. Otherwise it dissipates.

The prayer must be continuous, then, in order to remain ever in God’s sight. What the psalmist apparently has in mind is the ongoing and permanent ascent of his prayer before the face of God. The incense fragrance, symbolic of prayer, rises up to Him along with the elevation of prayerful hands. Both the incense and the raised hands give expression to his devotion….

Numbers 16 tells a pertinent story: During one of Israel’s desert rebellions, at a time when the Lord in His wrath sent a plague on the people, Moses instructed Aaron,

“Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put on incense, and carry it quickly to the congregation and atone for them (Hebrew: kapher ‘alihem; Greek: exsilasthai peri avton); for wrath has gone forth from the Lord” (Numbers 16:46; Hebrew/Greek 17:11).

Lutherans reading this may wonder at a few of Fr. Patrick’s phrases and assertions, but consider incense and divine wrath and what we read above: incense and Jesus are connected. It’s not so much prayer done by us, nor burned incense that turns away the wrath of God, but Jesus does, with whom we also associate the burning of incense and the prayers of the Faithful One.

Jesus, divine wrath, incense and peace with God. It’s a good combination.

Parched for Belonging

The following first appeared in Grace Lutheran’s July newsletter

 

601px-Volkswagen_LogoWe are a people who want to belong, to have a identity among others, to be a member of a set, a group. Maybe a secret group, maybe not. We show our allegiance and membership with our Official Team Wear ™. With orange shirts on certain days, or with red license plate frames. Wearing the right color or team logos on your clothes and cars make you members of a club.

And of course there are more than these associations. Watch motorcyclists do the low hand wave to each other when they pass. It doesn’t matter if they’re Harley or Honda riders, they still have the same wave, the little signal of acknowledgment. “You are a member of my tribe,” it says. People who drive Volkswagens do the same, flashing a V sign to one another. To be honest, I don’t know if people who drive Jettas or Passats do it—but drive a ‘70 Ghia or a 64’ Beetle and you’ll see it. This tribe, this society of car drivers, of people “in the know” is compelling to humans. We long for this kind of belonging, for identity. We all want to have a place, and for others to know it.

Of course, in today’s compartmentalized, isolated society, flashing a V sign is the best kind of tribe or club to be in. No expectations, no meetings no commitments. You can be a member of this secret society without having to do more than make car payments and change your oil—things you are doing anyway. It’s a fleeting, transitory connection with a stranger, a self-chosen, self-determined, self-defined “belonging” to something that only amounts to a drop of water for the one who is parched for belonging.

This marks the greatest departure of belonging to the Church, to the Body of Christ. When you were baptized, you were inducted into the most exclusive society ever imagined, with the strongest ties, with the most ancient of founding, with the deepest connection between its members, known and unknown. It is a Society that is a Body, that connects members not based on temporary joys and delights (My other car is a….) but on the eternal identity of us in Creation and Redemption. A baptism is more than initiation. It is death and rebirth, being made a member of the mystical Body of Christ, as our funeral liturgy calls it.

It is the most secret of societies, for we cannot see the Spirit with eyes of flesh. It is the most open of societies, accepting everyone regardless of Team and language, race, and past associations. It it the most exclusive of tribes, as it demands greatest place and bears no competition. The Christ is Lord of all and trumps every other association, interest, tribe or club which claims ownership of even a part of us. It is the most free of all associations, as your belonging is held by the Creator of all, and is not based on your keeping the rules. You can sell your bike or car or switch loyalties to a Texas team (God forbid), and still belong to Jesus.

So why isn’t it enough? Why do we who call upon Him seek belonging with teams and vehicles and clothing and everywhere else the world calls to us: “Join us! Be like us!” Why do those rebels and teenagers who reject “labels” and “cliques” and those scenes join together with other rebels and outsiders and dress and talk and hang with them? Why is Christ and His Church not enough?

Christ and His Church demand change. It welcomes us as we are, but rightly says that who we are is not who we will be. God has larger plans for you. God is making you like His Christ. God is giving you even a share in divinity! This is a painful process as we repent all those cracks and thorns and worms that keep us from being sons and daughters of the King. Jesus eats with sinners and welcomes them. But sinners repent in the presence of Christ and “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11). Our flesh fights against this. It is hard. And we know not where it ends. Christ and His Kingdom and His righteous to be sure. But what does it look like for me? What Christ is changing in us and where we are headed is seen with faith, and not with our eyes.

Who you are is not who you will be. This is true regardless of faith, regardless of religion. We are all moving targets, all going through change. I no longer flash a V sign at Beetles. Even team loyalties can change over time. Who you are is not who you will be. But this becomes a promise and a hope and a fervent joy for us who belong to Christ. Who you are now is not who you will be. God is at work in you giving you His divine life. He is making you into more than who you are already. He is taking you and refining you, making you more purely you. This is His work in His Church. Through His Word and Sacraments, you belong to the most precious, coveted society there is: the Society of Heaven. The People of God. The Children of the Father. Sons and Daughters of the King of Kings.