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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Holy smoke

Today, November 2, the Feast of All Saints was translated to the Sunday morning service at Memorial Episcopal Church, and I was there with the thurible* to smoke up the joint.

(Those of you who are not liturgically minded may want to absent yourselves at this point. I will be returning to secular subjects tomorrow morning.)

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland is traditionally a Low Church diocese, and it was exceedingly Low when my wife and I arrived here twenty-eight years ago. Incense, in particular, provoked reactions of dismay and horror as a Romish practice. It took years of wearing down opposition to establish its use on a certain number of festival days.

All Saints' is one of these festivals. The texts speak of "clouds of witnesses," and clouds I provide.

The use of incense, of course, is very old, antedating Christianity. Incense was burned as a sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as at the altars of virtually all religions in antiquity. Early on, Christianity ripped off the practice from Roman civic ceremonial, in which processions of civic officials in the streets were preceded by a thurifer with incense as an emblem of authority.

The major metaphoric sense with which incense is associated is the image of prayers rising to heaven with its smoke. But there are other associations. Incense was thought to purify, and because it was expensive, it was a worthy gift. Its function, the late Marion Hatchett explains his his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, is "honorific, fumigatory, and festive."

Or, as the Rev. James L. Jelinek, later bishop of Minnesota and the priest who presided at our wedding, liked to say, "It's for the nose." When incense is included at the Eucharist, all five senses of the body are involved, and smell is one of the most evocative associations. Incense smells like church.

Some, and they are vocal in making this plain, dislike it for physical reasons as well as theological ones and find it oppressive. But the pure Somalian frankincense that we use at Memorial is proudly labeled by the purveyor, the F.C. Ziegler company, as hypo-allergenic. I am not troubled at all by it, and I am standing directly above the pot (though it is true that I smoked a pipe for forty years, which may have inured me to fumes).

The Feast of All Saints, in which we commemorate the heroes of the faith, gets inevitably entangled with the Feast of All Souls, in which we mark the memory of all the faithful departed. And so, at Memorial today, incense was used not only at the entrance, exit, and censing of the altar at the offertory, but also at the reading of the names members of the the congregation had submitted to be particularly remembered.**

All Saints' is one of those days on which one wants it all: the Vaughn Williams setting of "For all the saints," the choir singing Anglican chant, a brass choir accompanying the hymns, the Elgar "Lux Aeterna," the solemn reading of names, and the aromatic smoke rising among the voices and prayers of the people.

*Thuirble, the censer in which incense is burned, from the Latin thurbibulum, ultimately from the Greek thyos, "incense, "sacrifice."

**Among those numbered today were Lucien Lundy Early, Clara Rhodes Early, Raymond McIntyre, and Marian Early McIntyre.


  1. **And had I known, I would have asked you to add Georgina L. Sprayberry. Mom died 11/5/07, and her birthday was 11/8/21. Agnostic though I am (a fact Mom heartily deplored), I always think of her in connection with All Saints' and All Souls'.

  2. I thought the incense was particularly fragrant--and well-swung--not overly heavy. Thanks.