Friday, January 7, 2011

Holy Smoke: The Joys of Christian Liberty

It has been said that when you walk into a church it should look like a church, sound like a church and smell like a church.  What does a church smell like?  Well, just ask Moses and Aaron or Zechariah and the Apostle John.  In Revelation the heavenly divine service is accompanied by many things, including incense.  It was also the gift the magi brought to Jesus and it is the prayer of the saints in the Old and New Testament: "Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice."

That's what we sang last night at Epiphany Vespers as the holy smoke attended the chancel.  It was beautiful.  It smelled great.  People were genuinely interested and learned about a custom of the church that they had never experienced before.  The use of incense won't add to the effectiveness of the Gospel.  The Gospel is effective all on its own without any merit or worthiness in us.  But the Lord chooses to use means to save and provide and He chooses to use earthly means, after all, as Lewis reminds us, God likes matter He created it (Lewis was also a smoker by the way!).  And so it only makes sense to use other earthly things like incense or processions or canticles or paraments or stained glass windows (and the list could go on and on) to point to the Gospel and when and where this is done in Christian freedom, out of service to the Gospel it is a good, right and salutary thing.  This use of incense at Epiphany Vespers, or any other service for that matter, is one of the great joys of Christian liberty.

But, caution, smoking may be harmful to pietists.  It's too "Catholic" you'll hear (whatever that means).  Ironically, as Pastor Cwirla pointed out, many of these same people stoke the potpourri and Yankee candles in their homes to the point of no inhale.  Enough ad hominem for now.  If incense is too "Catholic" then what else falls into that category?  The Roman Catholics have readings from Scripture is that too "Catholic"?  Should we stop doing that too?  They also have the Lord's Supper, Baptism, the Creeds, pews, stained glass windows, candles, statues, etc., etc., etc.  Once we get over our it's-too-Catholic-legalism you can arrive at the place of Christian freedom.  Of course there's always a danger of wrapping yourself in false piety and turning liberty into a new slavery.  Or bouncing from one extreme - legalism - to the other, license.  Both are really just a new slavery and the same old Pharisaic Old Adam at work.  People are of course free (in the Christian freedom sense of the word) not to enjoy or use incense.  However the wind blows both ways.  On the one hand, the holy smoker ought not make a law where no law exists.  But the one who, in freedom chooses not to use incense cannot declare thou shalt not on something that has not been forbidden.  If it's an aesthetic reason for not liking incense (or health concern, i.e. severe asthma) then that is one thing.  However, if it becomes a dogmatic "thou shalt," or "thou shalt not" the discussion has moved beyond Christian freedom and can endanger the freedom of the Gospel itself such as was the case with St. Paul and circumcision with Timothy and Titus.  The day someone tells me to stop stoking the charcoal because it's too "Catholic" or isn't Lutheran, etc. then I will pour another spoonful of resin and give thanks and haze. 

At the end of the day aesthetic arguments are nice, but the ones that point to Jesus are the best.  That's the purpose of incense after all.  It was used in the OT as a sweet aroma to the delight of YHWH's nostrels.  And there's nothing more pleasing to the Father than His own beloved Son fulfilling all righteousness (Matthew 3).  So, why not light up the incense as a pleasing aroma inlight of Christ our Paschal Lamb who has been sacrificed for us as we pray, praise and give thanks - a living sacrifice that flows in response to the gifts given from Christ's sacrifice on the cross to our sacraments in the Church.

Thankfully, incense is catholic in the best sense of the word.  And if we tossed out everything that smelled a little too close to Rome, well then we'd be hanging out in a different church with Andreas von Karlstadt and his iconoclastic cronies.  The Lutheran Reformation, as our friend C.P. Krauth said, is more about what was retained than what was thrown away.  It was a conservative reformation.  Church history and the Lutheran Reformation are full of these kinds of examples.  But that's another post for another day.  This one's just about all burned out. 
But just a few  words on logistics are necessary.  Practically speaking, you don't need to do it like these guys, even though it's totally cool.

Pick a good smelling frankincense, use it sparingly if your building has poor ventilation, bring it out during the prayers or a canticle, or even before the service just to get the smell of church in the air, and make sure to practice how you'll use it ahead of time.  People will appreciate it.  They told me so last night.  Don't overlook a great opportunity for catechesis.  The preschoolers also loved it and it was a great way to show them one of the gifts the magi brought at Epiphany, what kinds of thing are in the Scriptures, how we use them in the church and who would have ever guessed that a 3 year old would have tried to eat it like popcorn (don't worry, no preschooler were harmed in the making of this post).  But seriously, she tried to eat it...and failed, thankfully!

Speaking of Christian freedom, all this talk about smoke reminds me of Gesmokelcheit - a favourite CTS tradition - and a great post I read earlier this week on a "theology of pipe-smoking" from Andrew DeLoach, Esq.  Here's the link if you have facebook Toward a Theology of Pipe Smoking...or here for all the non-FB folks Toward a Theology of Pipe Smoking.

Here's brief trip down the holy smoker's hall of fame.  Maybe this will inspire you or just make you appreciate God's good gifts whether it's the leaf or the hops or the barley.

I could really go for some Longbottom Leaf right now.  Prost to the eternal Shire and to Christian Liberty!

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