Incensed… As we prepare to celebrate the holiest season of our Christian faith we are often experiencing the use of incense at Mass. For many, it is a rich and beautiful part of our worship together. And for some of us, it is being used more frequently to help us enter into the holy place and Presence of God.
But for some, it is an annoyance. It is an unfortunate reality that some individuals may find themselves allergic to the use of incense. And studies have been done that indicate it can be an irritant or induce allergic reactions. But it is important to recognize that these studies focused on personal, informal use of incense in homes or settings where it was an infusive and long-term exposure as opposed to the use of incense in the liturgy. Also the quality and types of incense and the material used to burn it was seen as a factor.
But as always it is important and helpful to learn more about aspects of our faith that may bless or challenge us. The use of incense in religious practices is rooted in the most ancient of times. The fragrance of incense infuses Scripture. There are hundreds of references (here are just a few: Ex. 30:7-9, Num. 4:16, I Chro. 9:29, II Chro. 13:11, Ps. 141:2, Mal. 1:11, Lu. 1:9, Mt. 2:11, Rev. 8:4)throughout the Bible for the use of incense. The Old Testament Hebrew liturgies had an altar dedicated only to using and burning incense. Incense was one of the precious gifts brought by the Magi when they came to worship Jesus. And in the Book of Revelation incense would seem a real part of heaven as it carries the prayers of the saints.
I have often heard people question Why the incense? The reasons are numerous. It is a very ancient part of our Christian faith. Long before the days of electronic hymnals, screens, and Apps for use in prayer and worship Christians used tangible, physical means to teach and express the mysteries of faith and God. Incense was used as an ancient and real symbol of our prayers rising to God. But it brings the truth that prayer is not a one-way street. Incense permeates our place and lives with the fragrance of prayer, of hope, of the beauty of the holy. As we lift our prayers to God scents of holiness, hope and faith infuse our lives. Incense also reminds us our prayer is not about just..self. In our liturgies, we, together, offer up our prayers.
Incense causes us to enter into the mysteries of faith and worship. But what about the real and practical challenges some face with incense. First, it needs to be recognized incense is not used to annoy or irritate us. The priest doesn’t intend to cause distress. There is a real effort to respect and address concerns some may have. But some see it as a distraction. Sometimes when our worship is different or when senses are encountering different perspectives it may well be distracting. But can we allow the Holy Spirit to “distract” us, to stir up our responses and seek, to focus more and perhaps differently? We also need to accept that there are times when matters such as possible allergies can also be stress reactions change. This does not negate real physical problems that might occur. It just allows the very real reactions may have diverse causes. So what is to be done? Do we no longer go to Mass if there may be incense? To go to a Mass where incense isn’t used is an option. Also the use of face masks, something we all are used to, can filter out the actual irritants. And it can be an opportunity to seek the healing help of Jesus. By all indications Jesus loves incense. He loves our prayers and incense is a very real aspect and means of prayer. Scripture would indicate incense may well be a part of our heavenly existence. So we can offer up our prayers when incense is used. For healing, for our crosses, for our annoyances and for the faith and love to grow in the holy mysteries to which God calls us to grow.
Incensed, is to encounter God in prayer, in worship and, in our hearts, and together to grow closer to God and each other.
Pax et bonum.
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