Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How do you Sacrifice Incense?

First-time visitor: “What is that smell?”
Me: “OH! That’s incense”
FTV: “What’s THAT!?”
Me: “Incense is a special power that we burn in the Church as an offering to God.”
FTV: “Hummm. I thought Saint Paul said we didn’t have to do that stuff anymore.”
Me: “Well! Just sit down here for a moment and let’s talk about that…

This is not a REAL conversation, but I have had many just like it in my twenty years (not all as a priest) in ministry. And I always enjoy a blunt conversation about why Saint Paul NEVER said to stop doing what we do in the Church.

The offering of incense (which by the way is a universal practice in EVERY major world religion) has been considered part of our worship since the earliest days. It is the feature of Psalm 140(141 in the Protestant/Roman Catholic Old Testament) offered EVERY evening to God.
LORD, I cry out to You; Make haste to me! Give ear to my voice when I cry out to You. Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not incline my heart to any evil thing, To practice wicked works With men who work iniquity; And do not let me eat of their delicacies. Let the righteous strike me; It shall be a kindness. And let him rebuke me; It shall be as excellent oil; Let my head not refuse it. For still my prayer is against the deeds of the wicked. Their judges are overthrown by the sides of the cliff, And they hear my words, for they are sweet. Our bones are scattered at the mouth of the grave, As when one plows and breaks up the earth. But my eyes are upon You, O GOD the Lord; In You I take refuge; Do not leave my soul destitute. Keep me from the snares they have laid for me, And from the traps of the workers of iniquity. Let the wicked fall into their own nets, While I escape safely. Psalm 140/141

One common theme I find myself discussing with visitors is the term, sacrifice, which most (thanks to Hollywood) associate with killing something to satisfy some deity. I have found MANY have the image of “the virgin in the volcano” in their mind when they hear the term, sacrifice. So when I suggest that we sacrifice incense to God, they get not just a little suspicious. It helps to point out, though I am always surprised at just how many refuse to believe me, that the ancient Jews sacrificed MANY things, not just living animals. Once I can convince the visitor to use the term, offering, rather than, sacrifice, it comes a bit easier to visualize the offering of incense, bread, wine, oil, wheat, grapes etc. It also helps them to visualize that we OFFER these items to God on the Altar as a gift. For an excellent discussion on the sacrificial system of the Jews, see Fr James Bernstein’s “Surprised by Christ.”

Once I’m past the terminology hurdle, I can  focus upon the FACT that the Holy Apostles maintained many of the offerings of the Jews in the Temple, but excused themselves to “house churches” to offer the Thanksgiving (Eucharist – see my earlier post on this term)
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. (Acts 2.42-3.1)
And IF the visitor does not agree that the incense is part of Divine Worship, I turn to Revelation. In the Book of Revelation, we read St. John’s vision of the glory of God and of the Lamb. In this vision, St. John sees the twenty-four elders who fall down in worship before the throne of God.
Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.  And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel's hand. (Revelation 8.3-4)
So, like I’m often heard saying, “Good enough for the Holy Apostles, good enough for me.” From that point, I pray a relationship is begun with the visitor about the genuineness of the Orthodox Church as the continuation of the Old Testament rather than a replacement. And we go from there…

This post is written for the 40 Days of Blogging Challenge sponsored by the Preachers Institute. You may find other blogs participating in this challenge. I hope you enjoy this year’s Advent journey.

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