Thursday, June 24, 2010

At the Altar of Incense

Sorry, this one is personal. But surrounded as I am both by little groups and mega churches which claim to be 'Biblical' I always find myself asking those who adhere to them how often they use incense. The answer is always "never!" And for me that ends the argument because it is my firm belief that in order to understand something of the mind of God, you have to be open to the continual use of incense in the services of the Church. This is both the teaching of the Book of Common Prayer and of Holy Scripture, however much we, both as individuals and as Churchmen, tend to ignore it. But on the feast of the Nativity of Saint John Baptist we should find it especially hard to do.

Why? Because it was when John's father, the priest Zacharias, was at the altar of incense in the temple that the angel Gabriel announced to him John's birth and told him what the child was to be called. That place and time have, as the sainted Dr. William Howard Frere, C.R., wrote in his revision of Procter's A New History of the Book of Common Prayer always bothered 'Protestants' because it seemed to close to the ceremonial law of Israel which they have rejected. I suspect they are also bothered by the fact that one of the magi's gifts was frankincense as well. It speaks to strongly of the fact that Christianity is a "yon side religion" with just too many things beyond the bare rationalism of Reformation fundamentalism.

The Book of Common Prayer never specifically orders the use of incense in the services of the Church, but from Elizabeth I's prayer book of 1559 the Act of Uniformity has ordered; "Such Ornaments of the Church and of the Ministers thereof, shall be retained, and be in use, as was in this Church of England by the Authority of Parliament in the second year of the reign of King Edward the sixth . . ." Certainly thuribles and incense boats were among them and we know by the complaints of Elizabeth's bishops to their friends in Zurich that incense was used. Bosher in his book The Restoration of the Church of England pointed out by quotes from the period that prayer book services in the chapels in France during the Commonwealth astonished the French by their copes, profound bows, and clouds of incense. And incense continued to be used in the cathedrals of England until a canon of Ely brought to an end in 1770 by complaining that it caused him headache. Rationalism and the beginning of secular humanism had set in.

But the prayer book reminds us of its scriptural intent and importance with the Sentences as the beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer. "From the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my Name shall be great among the Gentiles: and in every place incense shall be offered unto my Name, and a pure offering: for my Name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts. Mal. i, 11." "Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as the incense; and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice. Psalm cxli. 2."

And then there is the Book of Revelations with its description of the worship in heaven. Hard core Evangelicals and 'Protestants' of all varieties just might as well consign themselves to hell because you know they are not going be be comfortable with all those bowls of incense burning before the throne of God. And that is why every oratory, mission, parish or cathedral in the Continuum ought to be preparing its people for heaven by the regular use of incense because if Holy Scripture teaches us nothing else, there is no way that we can escape the fact that God likes it, likes it a lot and "the Bible tells us so!" It even gives us his own recipe as to how it is supposed to be mixed.

So if we as Anglicans are going to be good Biblical and New Testament Christians, we need to make sure that we imitate the worship of heaven as it is revealed in Holy Scripture. And that means that we are going to have to use incense both at the offices, in processions and at the celebration of Holy Communion. After all, we have he words of Jesus in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them." We read them as well, but it is only too plain that we frequently don't hear what they say, what they order. We are so stuck in our own defense against the very word of God that we can not hear it and certainly don't want to obey it. In things great and very small, it is time for that to change.


charles said...

Hello Bp. Lee,

Revelations describes the New Jerusalem descending from Heaven to earth. I see no reason why not to seek the glory of heaven in this world.

Nicholas at Comfortable Words posted this great quote by Bishop William Van Mildert (1765-1836),

"TOO many are still wont to depreciate Judaism, as a system unimportant to us, both in its moral and religious purpose; and even as inculcating a spirit diametrically opposite to that of the Christian Religion. Because the Gospel superseded the use of the Jewish Ritual, they are led to regard all external ordinances as mere beggarly elements of Religion, unworthy of the evangelical and spiritualized believer."

It is ironic that Puritans lean so heavily to the OT, sometimes even its civil law, but refrain from any resemblance to the ceremonial, e.g., continuity with God's Israel.

Anonymous said...

Bp. Lee and Charles,

The Apocalypse presents the realities of the heavenly liturgy to which the worship of the Church on earth is joined. And this fact is not lost to the Common Prayer tradition.

Besides the Holy Communion's Sursum Corda, the language of mystical ascent also informs the Offices, where we are bid to accompany the minister "with a pure heart and humble voice unto the throne of the heavenly grace." In Mattins,this invitation follows the reading of these two sentences:

"O send out thy light and thy truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling."

"Thus saith the high and lofty one who inhabiteth eternity... I dwell in the high and holy place with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit..."

The quotation from Von Mildert is excellent; so, too, are these words from Austin Farrer:

"The attempt to fence a field for this phenomenon in the New Testament between Biblical Judaism before and theological Paulinism after, has collapsed. Jesus did not sweep away the elaborated forms of Judaism; He fused them into a new unity and created them afresh. The process of reflection upon the Old Testament which we read in the Epistles and Gospels is not a secondary and subsequent attempt by apostolic authors to read back the new into the old. It is a continuation of the creative fusion which had its place in the mind and very existence of Jesus, in whom the old was born again from on high."


Canon Tallis said...

While a great fan of Austin Farrer, I somehow missed Mark's excellent quote from his work and would like to know the source. It is highly appropriate to my train of thought.

Let us be very clear that every page of the Old Testament is about one subject and that is Jesus. This is the lesson both of the teaching done on the road to Emmaeus and by St Philip in Acts. We can not honestly read one part of Scripture against another.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Bp. Lee

It is taken from Ch III, of "The Apostolic Ministry; Essays on the History and the Doctrine of Episcopacy", H.L. Kirk, Ed.

Good read.


Anonymous said...

We must also recall that Isaiah's privileged vision of heavenly worship (Is. 6:1-7) intimates the use of incense at the very throne of God!

Canon Tallis said...

I have this terrible vision of our denominationalist friends arriving in heaven and finding it filled with the smoke of incense make the immediate assumption that they are in hell. It should be clear to any good churchman that the use of incense at the Benedictus and the Magnificat as well as in processions and the Eucharist are training for future residence in heaven. Low Churchmen and non-Catholics may not like it at all.

Anonymous said...

That's too funny!