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.