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.

Reclaiming Ascension

The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s a big name for a big feast that nobody thinks about. But here’s the deal with the Ascension: it is so unbelievably significant for us as Christians because it reminds us why Jesus ain’t here. He’s reigning. He’s ruling. He’s with the Father present everywhere and filling all things. A Man is ruling at the Right Hand of the Father. A God gives His Body and Blood to us and never runs dry. He is ordering History and Time and everything for us, His Body, His people. This is what the Ascension teaches and confesses and celebrates.


Why is it not a bigger deal in our churches? Maybe because it’s always on a Thursday (40 days after Easter Sunday is always a Thursday). Maybe because we don’t have any grand traditions associated with it, apart from moving the Paschal Candle back to the font. Perhaps we can do better with this–not in creating traditions (inconceivable!), but in finding those that we have lost? The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us some traditions:

Certain customs were connected with the liturgy of this feast, such as the blessing of beans and grapes after the Commemoration of the Dead in the Canon of the Mass, the blessing of first fruits, afterwards done on Rogation Days, the blessing of a candle, the wearing of mitres by deacon and subdeacon, the extinction of the paschal candle, and triumphal processions with torches and banners outside the churches to commemorate the entry of Christ into heavenRock records the English custom of carrying at the head of the procession the banner bearing the device of the lion and at the foot the banner of the dragon, to symbolize the triumph of Christ in His ascension over the evil one. In some churches the scene of the Ascension was vividly reproduced by elevating the figure of Christ above the altar through an opening in the roof of the church. In others, whilst the figure of Christ was made to ascend, that of the devil was made to descend.

Some of these might translate to our Churches. Blessing seeds or the first sample cuts of the wheat harvest, for instance. Perhaps the procession outside of the church?

Or we can keep on the same course Lutherans have charted generations ago, going the way of minimalism and forget all these papistic trappings and celebrations and maybe even skip the Feast. Remember, however, that what you do not mark and note and incorporate into your worship gets forgotten and lost. When we worship as gnostics without processions and objects and signs, decrying the physical, we become gnostics in religion and faith.

It’s All Descriptive

Fr. Larry Beane posts this brilliant essay on our Lutheran Confessions and the Mass. I won’t rehash what he has written, but I do what to expand on his observation that the entirety of the Lutheran Confessions are descriptive and not prescriptive. Every article describes the Evangelical Catholics, Lutherans, the Subscribers, Confessors or whatever you want to call them. They describe and denote what we believe, teach, and confess. They are not rule books or Commandments.

Subscribe or not.

Make them descriptive of you and your Church or not. We have freedom to do so.

But explaining them away is not an option if they are supposed to be describing you. And they, if you’re Lutheran.

What is Worship?

The recent controversy in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod concerns our definition of “unionism” and “syncretism,” two “isms” we are bound to reject and refrain from as pastors and congregations in our Synod (if you don’t know what I am talking about, you are blessed and may google it on your own). What are these strange words? Unionism is worship with those Christians with whom we are not in theological agreement. Syncretism is worshiping with different faiths that worship other gods, i.e., trying to worship the Triune God in a worship service with  a Muslim who rejects the Triune God.

The issue is difficult for us, and most of the time we get caught up with trying to parse what the other people believe, and what the intent of the joint service is and the biggie: “What impression do I give by doing this?” This latter remark seems to drive most of the discussion in our church body.

But the real problem goes much deeper: what is worship, anyway? Do we even know what worship is so that we can define it in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions? Can we give any kind of criteria to measure and activity and be able to objectively say, “This activity was or was not worship?”

Is worship the Divine Liturgy? If so, then clearly many of us in the LCMS are not worshiping on Sunday mornings. If worship is only the Mass, then most of us aren’t doing it. Likewise, if worship is using any service or “order of worship” from the hymnal like Matins, then that doesn’t fit either. Plenty of congregations out there use no service from the hymnal, nor a service reprinted from the hymnal, nor a service with any particular liturgical order, and yet we don’t call what they are doing “not worship.” (I may not, but by myself I’m not the LCMS)

So is worship defined by some other sort of content? Prayer, readings and message or devotion? Is that sufficient for an activity to be a public worship service? If so, then what about a lecture given in a seminary classroom, beginning with prayer, involving a reading and discourse on the text? What is the difference between that lecture and public worship? Is going to a meeting with a Baptist who reads a meditation or devotion before the meeting an instance of worship?

Perhaps worship should be defined as sacred duties of prayer, reading Scripture or a homily while wearing liturgical vestments. That would fit the bill…except by a worship service led by a lay person, or a contemporary congregation led by a non-vested pastor or any other number of circumstances. And what do we call vestments? The clerical collar? Historically that was a uniform or street clothes, along with the cassock. Historically speaking only the surplice, stole, alb, maniple, chasuble were priestly vestments. Cassocks and clergy shirts were not. Is this the case today?

If worship cannot be necessarily defined by these things, can we arrive at any necessary condition for worship? If not, then what is the sufficient condition for worship: for a service to be named “worship” or “service” and mutually agreed upon by all? I’m not sure this is sufficient either. An Orthodox priest may attend and even offer a prayer at a Community Thanksgiving Worship Service but in his view, and the view of his Church, it is not worship because if he is not wearing his priestly vestments. In other words, even if an event is labeled “worship” it may not be so for us. If there is no invocation, Scripture reading or prayer, would it be worship for us even if it was labeled that? Regardless, many of these community events are called “vigils” or “prayer services” or simply “a prayer for…” or “Gathering” and intentionally shy away from calling it “worship.”

In other words, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod needs to determine what worship is before we can ever begin to intelligently discuss if this or that pastor is involved in syncretisitic or unionistic worship. And sadly, because of our inability to discuss or agree on any kind of rules without someone claiming “legalism” (a misnomer in this case) such a definition may never come.

Four Thoughts on Lang and Lent

“Throughout the season of Lent, the following traditional customs may be observed: the Collect for Ash Wednesday is said after the Collect for the Day in every service of the season.” (Paul Lang, Ceremony and Celebration. CPH, 1965)

First: who knew besides the liturgically-minded from Tridentine Rite practice?

Second: This book is out of print.

Third: This book being out of print is both a symptom and cause of the liturgical disorder among us.

Fourth: CPH–republish this book!

That is all….For now.


Would Jesus Feel “at home”?

Pastor Peters on worship, architecture, liturgy and Jesus. There’s more to his post on his blog, but I do want to quote a goodly piece of it here:

Jesus also worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem. The worship of the temple was anything but simple and plain.  In this splendid and ornate building attested to both by the building plans given for Solomon to follow and in the reconstructions that follow, the most ornate and elaborate art and metal work was seen.  We have a history of God making sure that the place where He was to be worshiped was sacred and looked like a temple befitting the Lord of all.  The tabernacle, and both the Herodian and Solomonic temples in Jerusalem were splendid, ornate and rich buildings.  What took place inside them was also elaborate, ceremonial, and ritualistic. Priests wore ornate vestments designed by God Himself.  There were processions into and around the temple, ornate gilded images of angels around the worship space.  Incense was burned before God to symbolize the prayers of the faithful rising to heaven and the pillar of smoke rising from the roof was visible to those all around the exterior of the building.

Would Jesus feel comfortable in the Divine Service here?  Well, you take a gander at this list and tell me if Jesus would be put off by the liturgical order and its rich ceremonial tradition:

  1. Beautiful, rich, elaborate and ornate structure for the temple of God
  2. Priests in rich vestments whose every detail was set by God
  3. Set readings from the Old Testament
  4. the chanting of psalms
  5. the burning of incense
  6. an altar of sacrifice
  7. golden candlesticks
  8. the bread of the presence
  9. the holy of holies (the most sacred domain within the temple)
  10. the lamp of the presence
  11. processions of priests and people
  12. the offering of the holy sacrifice
  13. the laver or font for cleansing the offerings
  14. water fonts for ritual ablutions before entering worship
  15. beautiful fabrics, carvings, textile, and embroidery…

If Jesus was accustomed to all of this, what would he think about the empty barns that too often pass as Christian churches?  Or the services dominated by music designed to entertain and those who perform for the benefit of the spectator?  Lets get real here…  Jesus is not indifferent to the things we might call extraneous or added extras.  In His Word Jesus shows His great affection for the worship of the synagogue and temple — even going to the extreme of emptying the temple court yards of money changers so that the intercession and incense of prayer would not be obscured by business.  It is not what Jesus would think of liturgical worship but what does Jesus think of the health club atmosphere that includes Starbucks and lattes and self-help and self-interest activities that seem inevitably to overshadow reverence and awe?

What about the Music?

Of all the arguments for and against the liturgy and “Contemporary Worship” and CCM the most touchy is the music itself: the instruments/instrumentation, the style, the chords, harmonies and melodies employed when singing in church. Liturgy dudes will win every time when it comes to depth of theology, biblical quotations and illusions and the sacramental nature of worship. They will. But on the subject of “why church organ and Bach pieces?” it’s harder. I mean, can’t you sing “My Song is Love Unknown” to a soft-rock keyboard and a swing beat? Why can’t you play it on guitar? Why do people like me pretty much insist on these classical-style music too? We must like that stuff, but nobody else does.

We could discuss the style and effects of the music: rock music titillates and stokes the passions. Then we would have to prove that and that having your baser passions all excited is more Dionysius-worship than Christian worship. But Paul Grime makes it easy for us in his essay, “What Would Bach Do Today?” (Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 76, Nos. 1-2, p. 12). First, he points out that what you hear in church is not “classical music” but “serious music.” But even more to the point he writes, “…the second fallacy that requires debunking concerns the argument that classical music only appeals to a small segment of the population. In truth, the appeal factor is closer to 100 percent; the problem is that most people are unaware of it.” Grime points us to the death scene in the sixth Harry Potter movie and the soundtrack that swells with strings and woodwinds which tug at the hearer’s heart. He continues, “This is not pop, soft rock, or easy-listening music; it is serious, well-crafted music. There is little chance that anyone watching the movie would leave the theater saying, “The movie was great; I just don’t like that style of music.”

So  how is that people leave church thinking that? Is it that badly performed so it is distracting? Possibly. Maybe its that we spend so much time trying to humanize Jesus by making Him a dude and entertain ourselves with Church-stuff that we do not see the seriousness of our worship and life together. When it’s all trivialized by the Pastor-as-emcee and sermons are full of jokes and homey stories, music fit for the death of Dumbledore wouldn’t mesh with our home-spun fun and games on a Sunday morning.


Liturgical Re-enactment Society?

Grace Lutheran Church’s tagline is “Ancient Faith, Today’s Tulsa.” That’s pretty good. I really like it. My predecessor did many wonderful things in bringing back, re-establishing and teaching about the historic liturgy and ceremonial. He taught the people to respect and love the Christian faith and liturgy which our forefathers embraced and confessed and sometimes were martyred for.

Now that we have a new pastor, some old questions are raised again. “Why do we use incense? Is it necessary to kneel like we do? Why does the Assisting Minister wear a dalmatic, and where does he stand? Why does he do that?” And I’m the one who asked a number of these questions as I sought to learn the local traditions, to respect what Pr. Beecroft taught, to make worshiping with and next to Pr. Tiews smooth.

The answer to some of these questions is biblical. God required the use of incense in the Old Testament, and the use of it in the New Covenant is not mandated, but used out of freedom and sacrifice of love and praise. It’s symbolic and praised in Scripture. But a lot of the answers to the questions of why are “Because that’s the way the Church has done things for a long, long time.” Why wear the dalmatic? Because it’s historic. Why receive adult catechumens at the Easter Vigil? Because it’s the ancient and historic practice.

And this opens a can of worms. Are we simply re-creating the past? Are we High Church Lutherans being civil war reenactors, just pretending and doing dress up and acting like Christians of days gone by? Are we the Society of Creative Anachronisms? That’s even a better analogy, since what we do is incredibly anachronistic. We can’t perfectly recapture the past, even if that was the goal, because we don’t know what the past was. We cannot time travel and get it exactly right. Even the Orthodox Church, with all their conservative liturgy cannot recapture the past completely. The liturgy has changed and evolved and developed over time.

“Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved.” Augsburg Confession, XXIV

This is what our Lutherans Fathers confessed and risked their lives for. This is what every pastor vows to teach, preach and practice—to uphold with his life. This is what every Lutheran congregation vows to uphold. It’s not optional. But…whose Mass do we then retain? Do we retain the Mass as Luther knew it? Do we attempt to go back further and retain the Mass from earlier days? Do we retain the Mass as Walther knew it and retained it? Do we retain “the Mass” as its published in our hymnal?

Every pastor and every congregation has to deal with this question one way or another. Many of them do it the easy way: do what the hymnal says and whatever peculiar way we saw growing up. Many others ignore this article of the Augsburg Confession and betray their vows by making stuff up and stealing from methods of revivalism and entertainment consumerist churches.

What we do here is interpret this Article of Confession as best as we can at the time, as circumstances and our confession allow, with our resources and knowledge. It’s a growing, living, practicing, praying life of comparing our actions and words with what we have received as Lutherans, as our Lutheran and Catholic Fathers have performed it, adapted to this time and place and circumstance and what we have. We are not reenacting, nor are we playing and pretending. We are holding to what we have received and been taught and always holding onto what is good and beneficial for us. It’s not playing. It’s not acting. It’s not trying to recreate a period for the sake of education or fun. It’s a confession of faith. It’s a commitment to our tradition, to our past and to the life of the Church.

Kissing the Book

Grace Night Divine Liturgy, 2012

I stood in red dalmatic and announced the Holy Gospel. Red, as we celebrated the Eve (of the Eve) of the Feast of the Holy Cross, transferred.

The book was covered in gold with images of the Evangelists on the cover. I made the cross at the beginning of the reading, right on the page, and then again on my forehead, lips and heart. After the reading I kissed the book and placed it back on the altar.

Why did I kiss the book? Am I two? Do I kiss owies and scrapes too?

Maybe. Just maybe I am a two-year-old, trying to receive the Kingdom of Heaven like a little child. Maybe just maybe I kissed the book because it gives me Jesus. Maybe I kissed the book because I eat Him.

That’s it.