Ever toeing the feminist line, I was one of the first altar girls in our Diocese growing up despite the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. I could never light the goliath candle sticks before the mass when everyone had nothing to do but pray or stare at you. In the process of attempting to do so, I would blush so that my cheeks began to match the red of our layered robes. The whole thing was doomed, but never more so than on the special feast days when they brought out the intense incense. On those days, it was all I could do to kneel without passing out, as proximity to the priest made the noxious incense that much stronger.
Even though I am no longer Catholic, I cannot seem to get away from incense. My husband, against all odds, likes the smell of incense which leaves our house smelling like the hippie store Loose Lucy’s on occasion.
When I was just about to give up on incense entirely, someone led me to a semi-obscure verse in the last book of the Bible that forever changed the way I think of incense. In the eighth chapter of Revelation,which depicts the throne room of God, John writes, “Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand.” Revelation 8:3-4.
Without getting into a long conversation about the often-contested book of Revelation, I’d like to extract the beautiful image drawn here by John. In the throne room of God, there is an enormous golden bowl filled with the prayers of the saints. The cries for help, justice and mercy, the intercessions, the confessions, the intimate conversations and sighs of God’s people smell sweet to Him. He keeps them near. He gathers them, even collects them before His throne. The eternal, self-sustaining, all powerful God of the universe keeps the prayers of His people ever before Him. He treasures them.
One of the jobs of the priests in the Old Testament was to keep continual sacrifice and incense in the innermost courts of the Temple.
Why all this talk about incense? After all, not too many of us are priests, right?
Wrong. Every Christian is a priest in the priesthood of all believers. We are called to bring the beautiful incense of prayer before God’s throne, just as the priests of old were called to burn actual incense in the Temple. Our honest and earnest prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, confession and supplication, along with the sighs that the Holy Spirit prayers for us when we pray when we don’t even have words (Romans 8), delight our Father and King.
We don’t have to sacrifice any more to appease our God; Christ was sacrificed once for all. Yet, we are called to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God as a spiritual act of worship (Romans 12). As members of the priesthood of all believers, we have the great privilege and duty of keeping the golden bowl of prayers before the Throne of God spilling over in worship to God. We also have the great promise that Our King receives and treasures each of them, holding them to His heart, even when it often feels as if they are lost in the atmosphere. The thing about incense is that it cannot be ignored or unnoticed.