Friday, 29 July 2011

Holy Smoke

... or, as it is more properly known, incense. The July-September 2011 issue of The Sower contains a short excerpt from Romano Guardini in a series on the signs used in the Liturgy. One of the features of the new translation of the Roman Missal that is shortly to come in to use is that the Scriptural origins/echoes of the texts are much more obvious. This short excerpt similarly draws attention to the Scriptural basis for using incense.
"And I saw ... and an angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer, and there was given him much incense ... And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God, from hand of the Angel." [cf Revelation 8:3 ff].

There is a grand beauty in this laying of the bright grains on the glowing coal and then the scented smoke rising from the swinging censer. It is like a melody with rhythmic movement and sweet odour. Without any purpose, as clear as a song. Beautiful squandering of costliness. A gift of un-reserving love.

So once, when the Lord sat at table in Bethany, and Mary brought the costly spikenard and poured it over His feet, and dried them with her hair, and then the hosue was filled with odour, narrow minds murmured: "To what purpose is this waste?" The Son of God replied: "Let her alone, she hath done it for my burial". A mystery of death was here, of love, of odour, of sacrifice.

...Incense is a symbol of prayer, and precisely of that prayer that knows no purpose - that asks for nothing, but rises up like the Glory be at the end of a psalm - that desires only to adore and thank God "because of His great Glory".
Guardini recognises the danger of reducing the use of incense to a childish play-acting at which point a Christian conscience should call us back to prayer "in spirit and in truth". That having been said, I wonder whether parishes might consider returning to the use of incense at Sunday Mass, for the sense of the sacred that it engenders, a sense of the sacred that the new translation should also encourage.

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