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.

A Reminder of our True Enemies

….there is nothing which troubles, incites,irritates, wounds, destroys, distresses and excites the demons and the supremely evil Satan himself against us, as the constant study of the psalms. The entire holy Scripture is beneficial to us and not a little offensive to the demons, but none of it distresses them more than the psalter. In public affairs, when one party sings the praises of the emperor, the other party is not distressed, nor does it move to attack the first party. But if that party begin reviling the emperor, then others will turn on it. Thus it is that the demons are not so much troubled and distressed by the rest of holy Scripture as the are by the psalms. For when we meditate upon the psalms, on the one hand, we are praying on our own account, while, on the other hand, we are bringing down curses on the demons. Thus, when we say Have mercy upon me O God after your great goodness; and according to the multitude of your tender mercies, do away with my transgressions and Cast me not away from your presence: and take not your holy spirit from me and Cast me not away in the time of age: forsake me not when my strength fails me, we are praying for ourselves. But then we bring down curses on the demons when, for instance, we say: Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered: let them also that hate him flee before him, and again: Let him scatter the people that delight in war, and I myself have seen the ungodly in great power and flourishing like a green bay-tree: I went by and lo, he was gone; I sought him, but his place could nowhere be found and Their sword shall go through their own heart….”

Taken from The Spiritual Meadow, by John Maschos

HT: Again and Again

Instead, Pray

This was taken from a talk entitled, “On Becoming and Remaining an Orthodox Christian” (from Emily’s Blog) but it pertains to all of us.

[A]void what is called the temptations from the left and the right. Temptations from the left are laxism, weakness, compromise, indifference. Temptations from the right are censorious judgement of others, the stuck-up zeal of the Pharisee, ‘zeal not according to knowledge’. These temptations are equally dangerous and equally to be combatted. Both waste an enormous amount of time and energy on sideshows like the discussion of irrelevant issues like ecumenism, rather than praying. Being in society is the way in which we can get to know ourselves, see our failings and avoid being sidetracked into theoretical concerns.

Fr. Jonathan: How to Vote like an Ancient Christian

Here’s a lengthy quote from one of my favorite bloggers, an Orthodox Priest, poet and intellectual. When he speaks of Christian tradition and the Ancient past, he knows what he’s talking about. He’s read those guys.

The topic? Christianity and government. And this is not what you’ll hear on any radio station nor television network.

In all of these comments, there seemed to be held, as axiomatic, the belief that the Bible and Christian Tradition know all about voting in American elections.

This belief, it turns out, is unsubstantiated. It has no legs.

The idea of “voting” is a more difficult subject than one might expect. In the long history of the church, the vote given to every adult (i.e., universal suffrage) to choose an executive is a very recent thing.

The Church is certainly more used to dealing with Emperors, Kings, oligarchies and plutocracies (like the one we might be in, actually). No matter what form of government, or how intensely anti-Christian (or even “antichrist”) the government was, the Church has been willing to articulate its prophetic voice about certain prevailing concerns.

I suggest that in the use of this new thing — this “vote” — that we follow the Church’s longstanding prevailing concerns (or “values”) when we make our political decisions.

These concerns can actually be tallied up in Scripture (from the pronouncements of our Lord Himself, and also from the Apostles) and in Church History from 90 AD on. What did the Church constantly “complain” about, in the face of the State?

The Church’s “governmental” concern was firstly to be left alone to worship God through the celebration of the Eucharist, in accordance with the Apostles’ teachings. This you can find in the writings of the Apologists, especially Justin Martyr. You might want to call this concern “religious liberty,” but myself, I don’t know — that term, “religious liberty” is tied up inextricably with the concept of modern terms like “establishment” and “separation of church and state.” I rather like some elements of establishment (like certain tax-free amenities) — but this is not at all what the Apostolic Fathers were writing about. And I’m not at all sure whether the Church has evern been sanguine about “pluralism,” either. If we ever get to a state of affairs where we lose our tax privileges, it is not difficult for me to imagine Justin or Clement or Ignatius saying something like “Well, at least now you don’t have to accept the equal validity of other religions, n’est-ce pas?” (I mean, doesn’t it make sense that if you accept at least a rudimentary form of establishmentism, then you must also accept a sort of neo-Roman syncretism, like what modern pluralism really is?)

Another concern was for the treatment of slaves, and the treatment of other disenfranchised people (like women, children — born and unborn, and non-citizens). The Church worked to raise money for the manumission, or freeing, of slaves.

Another concern, especially before Constantine, was about the prosecution of war. For the first three centuries, the Church was largely pacifistic, actively doubting whether anything was worth the horrors of military conflict. Bishop Ambrose of Milan actually locked the door of the church to Emperor Theodosius for his having commanded his troops to massacre 7000 civilians  in Thessalonika.

Another concern was about the appetite for violent entertainment. It was the Church’s complaints, over a few generations, that led the Roman Empire to put a stop to gladiatorial combat. And the Church continued to protest against entertainments that played on violent and sexual themes. The Church has always been more “puritanical” than we’d care to admit.

What became prominent as prevailing concern, stretching over the centuries, was the State’s relationship with the poor. Many, many Church Fathers — starting with James in his Epistle and including figures like the heroic St. John Chrysostom — continually reproached the rich and powerful for their lack of concern about the economic and physical miseries of their fellow man. Chrysostom himself was sent to his certain death in exile because he dared to criticize the Empress for her luxurious aristocratic largesse (Aelia Eudoxia, in haute couture, was lucky to have, willing to join her, a lot of other people whose feelings were hurt by the Patriarch of Constantinople — including the Patriarch of Alexandria and his imperial minions).

Later on, in the exceptional period of time known as the Byzantine Empire, the Church actually invented the idea of the hospital, as we know it today. St. Basil the Great constructed, in his town from his own funds, a vast complex that offered food and assistance to the poor, and healthcare for the sick and infirm. Healthcare and welfare have always been essentially Christian notions — at least, “Christian” in the sense of Holy Tradition.

What is interesting here is to consider what is absent from these prevailing concerns of the Church over the centuries, and under various forms of governments.

Never once did the Church stand for the de-regulation of economic activity, especially usury. The Church has never been “on the side” of free market or business/corporate interests. You may counter that there Christian voices, starting with the Reformation, waxed lyrical about capital and complex interest, industrialism, and the protestant work ethic: if you were to say so, I would gently remind you that laissez-faire theories used to be called “liberal” in the olden days, and were produced by Reformation economic theory that severed the marketplace from the judgment of the Saints (cf. Revelation 20.4-6).

Never once has the Church opposed “Statism” per se, or “federalism” or the centralization of the State. This is hard for me to admit, because I harbor not a few libertarian notions. But the fact remains that the Church has always perceived a single, strong State as an aid to the promulgation of the Gospel. Witness, as an example, the early Church’s very positive view of the pax Romana established by Caesar Augustus — this despite the sporadic (but harsh) persecutions of the Church by Roman officials. The Church has never profited from the breakdown of civilization.

Never once did the Church oppose immigration. Americans, over the course of their short history, have repeatedly opposed immigration. But the Church, in her longer history, has not.

Never once did the Church protest against what we have grown to call today, inaccurately, “socialism.” The Church, historically speaking over the centuries, has never discouraged any “dole” or “welfare” or governmental relief given to the poor. This sort of “Christian protest against relief” is a rather modern anomaly that is troubling, to say the least, and has nothing to do with real Christian values.

Real Christian values — which one expects should constitute the benchmark for Christian voting — has always been “conservative” when it comes to doctrine and belief.

But it has always been quite “liberal,” as it were, when it comes to economic legislation and political enfranchisement.

Rubrics: Maximal and Minimal

I’ve gone on a rubric kick the last week as I contemplated (now preparing for) ministry at Grace Lutheran Church. They are higher church than Redeemer, and so I have some studying and homework to do. For instance, at Grace the Pastors genuflect during the confession, at the Words of Institution etc.. They use a lavabo and incense as well. All things I do not use here.

What’s funny about this is that the Lutheran blogosphere is in a tizzy about rubrics and ceremony even as I am doing this homework and study. They are debating how much and how far and “is it necessary” and all.

What I want to do is learn. We don’t have a good published official ceremony and only the mere suggestion of rubrics in our hymnal and altar books these days. We have a living tradition of mediocrity and minimalism and pragmatism in the LCMS, even while many deplore the traditional ceremony because its “tradition.” What do I mean? I learned conduct of the liturgy through years of watching other pastors while I grew up, pastors who were faithful and genuine, but who themselves had only watched others and made adjustments, who watched others or made adjustments, all without a foundation of what is supposed to happen at this “Mass” which we as Lutherans never abolished.*

On this matter, I think the Orthodox have a better handle and philosophy than modern Lutherans. Orthodox Christians are about the maximum. They worship and pray under the assumption that all is good and more is better. They make adjustments for pastoral reasons, but are taught the most and told how to make allowances. (Of course, I’ve terribly minimized Orthodox theology. Call me irony-man).

This approach is present in Lutheran theology and worship, but is drowned out by modern minimalism. Lutheran theology says all our sins are fully forgiven in the absolution at the beginning of the worship service. But our sins are fully forgiven in the Holy Eucharist as well. Why double up? Why not just forgive them fully once? Because more forgiveness is better. Because our God is not a CPA. He forgives more than we sin. He gives more than we either desire or deserve. God gives all. The maximum. This is our theology when it comes to justification, but strangely absent when it comes to worship and the liturgy. In worship we became minimalist, determining that we don’t need this or that. That such is too catholic, or too redundant, or “not necessary.”

So…for those of you liturgy gurus out there, tell me what I need!

Perspicuity and Mystery

Note: Here is the post I’m still working on. And I still would like your feedback. Does it make sense? Am I creating a straw man fundamentalist/perspicacious reader? What else am I missing/getting wrong?


The great mystery of the incarnation remains a mysteryt eternally. Not only is what is not yet seen of it greater than what has been revealed–for it is revealed merely to the extent that those saved by it can grasp it–but also even what is revealed still remains entirely hidden and is by no means known as it really is.

St. Maximos the Confessor, First Century of Various Texts

I think this quotation encapsulates the greatest difference between Catholicism–meaning both Roman and Eastern Orthodox–and Protestantism.

For Protestants, especially of the fundamentalist sort, the revelation is what it is: clear, perspicuous. Jesus is Jesus and what is revealed is, in a way, complete. Scripture is a plain recording of events and should be taken at face value. This explains the literalism of the fundamentalist reading of Genesis 1-3. Scripture says what it says. Six days is six days. God tells us.  As Bart Simson says, “Straight from God’s brain to your mouth.”

Thus when it says that Adam and Eve were naked, and later that God gave them skins to wear, they hear it just that way. If they draw it, Adam and Eve are always standing behind shrubs so they don’t offend our sensibilities. The Fathers and Jewish Rabbis read it differently, that when God fashioned them garments of skin (Gen. 3:21) that it might have meant bodies like we have now, that were somehow different before the fall into sin.

But this straight-ahead understanding of revelation might also explain why some Protestants interpret the Eucharist symbolically, as ironic as that sounds. In the catholic understanding, the Lord gives His Body and Blood; that which was nailed to the tree is supernaturally present in the Eucharist we receive. We take Christ at His Word. As Luther said, ” ‘Is’ means ‘Is’. ”

However for Protestants who do see the Scriptures as full revelation, or according to notions of  perspicuity, there is no greater Sacramental nature under the Scriptures. The Scriptures teach themselves and do not reflect or shadow a greater mystery. Things are taken at face value, and are not appearances of other things. So even though Jesus says “this is My body,” there cannot be an underlying sacramental nature to these words, as if God is

using a means to convey Himself. There is no mystery beyond which the words describe or refer, remember. Thus the words of Christ must be understood metaphorically, not sacramentally. Metaphor, not mystery. At face value–as illustration.

In brief, this also could explain the naturalistic, casual depiction of Christ in Protestant “art” as opposed to the stylized forms of Byzantine art. Jesus is Jesus for Protestants. A dude. If Jesus does not speak, teach and exist in a fundamental reality outside of which we cannot speak, then He is only depicted in the most naturalistic ways. It confesses that there is nothing more to Jesus than what appeared in the bare words of Scripture.

Even briefer: this explains why fiction written by Protestants is limp compared with Catholic writers. Catholics understand symbolism, mystery, depth, and foreshadowing in ways that Evangelical Protestants cannot.

Where do Lutherans fit in this mix? Like in many things, we don’t. We don’t because we recoil against allegory, mysticism and tradition when it comes to hermeneutics. Where the hierarchy emphasized these things, Lutherans saw distortions of the plain meaning of Scripture, in general. However, so much early Lutheran theology is dependent upon this typological, sacramental understanding of revelation that we’re in the same boat as the Catholic and Orthodox….when Lutherans stick to their theology.

Acronymn Soup: LXX, NETS, OSB

I’m thinking about getting A New English Translation of the Septuagint (The Septuagint (LXX)  is the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT that was in use in the early Church–most of the quotations of the Old Testament that appear in the New Testament were from the LXX).

It’s similiar to the Orthodox Study Bible in that they translate the LXX based upon an existing translation; in other words, it is not a fresh translation. They start with an existing version and change it only when the original text differs.

It’s different than the OSB because, by many accounts, the OSB messes up the translation. How could that have happened? I don’t know, except to say that perhaps they weren’t as careful as they could have been, or there were editorial considerations.

How do we know that the NETS succeeds where the OSB fails? Save that it’s published by Oxford University Press, there is no assurance.

Why chase translations? That is the subject of another post…

I Almost Didn’t Read this Post Because Something Else Grabbed my Attention

The sons of the world consider distraction to be something innocent, but the holy fathers recognize it to be the origin of all evils. The person who is given up to distraction has, concerning all subjects and even the most important ones, a very light and most superficial understanding. One who is distracted is usually inconstant. The feelings of his heart usually lack depth and strength; they are not solid but transitory. As a butterfly flits from flower to flower so also a distracted person passes from one earthly satisfaction to another, from one vain care to another.- St. Ignatius Brianchaninov

HT: Mind in the Heart