Prayer Incense

Image of incense rising from a censor

Biblical Usage

Let’s start with this: Did you know that the Bible mentions prayer incense as part of worship over 100 times? Are you aware that the use of prayer incense was ordered by God Himself for the Tabernacle worship under Moses? Recall, this was hundreds of years before its use in the Temple built by Solomon.  Do you ever consider that it was part of Jesus’ own worship when he visited the Temple?

It seems a pity, then, that so many churches have no place for this ancient symbol of prayer. I suspect that is largely because so many churches nowadays think of worship as no more than a praise service.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a service of praise. My point is that there is much more to worship than just praise. In addition, there are – at least – confession, contrition, absolution, intercession, and the Eucharist.

Worship as Foretaste of Heaven

I believe that the church as an institution, as the vestibule to heaven, should be as unlike the rest of everyday life as possible. The church should have its own architecture. Create its own dress. Its own calendar. Compose its own sound. Develop its own vocabulary. And, yes, even its own smell.

Some Examples

incense and icon image

*In the world ofArchitecture, the church can have many styles, but they can still all be cruciform: in the shape of a cross.

*When consideringDress, what has developed over the centuries is robed choirs and clergy, and a clerical collar for the clergy, to set them off from everyday life.

*The LiturgicalCalendar, the traditional Ordo which begins the church year with four Sundays looking forward to Christ’s birth (Christmas). The calendar then follows the rest of his life through the year: his ministry, arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the founding of his Church.

*As to sound, church music has a long and distinguished history that culminates in the chorales of Bach. And hymns by Beethoven, Mendlessohn, Brahms, Handel, and Williams – to name but a few. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that music developed within the four walls of the church.

*And when it comes to language – especially the words that constitute the worship service – there is nothing that matches the dignity and power of the liturgy to be found in The Book of Common Prayer. There is a time for praise, to be sure. But there is also a time for worship to be serious – what the framers of the BCP called “solemnity.”

*Of course, the church smell is the incense – which brings us back to our title. Incense has been part of the worship of God’s people since very ancient times. Prayer incense was used at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1: 9,10).

Prayer Incense in The Apocylypse

And Revelation 8: 3,4 tells us it is part of the worship of God as that is conducted heaven.

Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden        censer; and much incense was given him, so that he might           add it to the prayers of all the saints… and the smoke of the   incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God          out of the angel’s hand.

Artistic depiction of incense rising

What Revelation describes in heaven is no different from what now takes place on earth. As the smoke of incense rises toward the ceiling of the place of worship, it makes visible the prayers of God’s people as they rise to heaven. In addition, incense is also a symbol of our reverence of God. Think of the Christmas carol, We Three Kings. One of its lines goes: “incense owns a Deity nigh,” that is, “incense acknowledges that God is near.”

Conclusion

Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ gave up the use of prayer incense. I see that as a pity. So many of the historic things that can make the church and its worship distinct from everyday life have lost their place. Let us hope and pray that as our sisters and brothers reconsider their forms of worship, they will re-institute the ancient practice of using prayer incense.

Virtue Ethics In Our Culture

Do the right thing

Virtue ethics can be thought of as an ethics of doing the right thing (See previous post) In the Encyclopedia of Philosophy we find the following:

Most virtue ethics theories take their inspiration from Aristotle who declared that a virtuous person is someone who has ideal character traits. These traits derive from natural internal tendencies, but need to be nurtured; however, once established, they will become stable. For example,  a virtuous person is someone who is kind across many situations over a lifetime because that is her character and not because she wants to maximize utility or gain favors or simply do her duty.   

To Have a Noble Character

The ideal character traits are the focus of virtue ethics.  These traits have the effect of others looking upon one as a person of noble character.

It is interesting to me how often the concept of virtue and the ethics which follow upon the pursuit of virtue are central to the stories we find intriguing.  Will the (dark) Empire overthrow the Rebellion? Will the good and virtuous Snow White survive the evil intentions of the wicked Queen? The conflict of the good and the bad, the virtuous and the evil informs the story lines of most stories. It is by means of our engagement in these themes that we form our own ideas of what is right or wrong.  We are, normally, going to identify with law enforcement over against the bank robbers. We want the NCIS teams to triumph over the bad guys who are trying to disrupt society or who have murdered someone to hide their own evil acts.

Bennett’s Books on Virtue Ethics

Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues

When we read children’s literature, we often hope that the story will subtly (or pointedly) promote good and hold it up as something to be pursued. In addition, however, children need to have adults in their lives who are good.  William J. Bennett the former Secretary of Education for the USA put it this way: “For children to take morality seriously they must be in the presence of adults who take morality seriously. And with their own eyes they must see adults take morality seriously.”
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/william_bennett

Virtue ethics, then, are a way for adults to shape the moral sensitivity of children.  By acting virtuously they will be handing on the traditions of what is good and morally right.

Is Artemis Fowl a Virtue Ethicist?

At times, however, there is a conflict which arises in our perceptions of what is good.  For example, in the series of young adult novels about Artemis Fowl, we are drawn into admiring and rooting for a young man who is a criminal genius. For all his evil intentions, young Artemis finds himself doing what is right and virtuous because of how his mother would want him to live.

book Cover of Artemis Fowl

He is further influenced by his fairy companion, Holly Short, toward acting for the good. The novels all are filled with the conflicted sense in Artemis that what he is doing is wrong, while at the same time hiding it from his mother who would be very disappointed in him if he were to be found doing things which would end up on the evil side of the moral ledger. And finally, in the final book, he acts for the good without thought of great personal gain.

Some Proponents

When we evaluate the actions of others, we often use the virtue ethics of Aristotle or his philosophical heirs of our day. Those heirs include these who are named in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Anscombe, G.E. M., “Modern Moral Philosophy”, Philosophy, 33 (1958).  This article is the original call for a return to Aristotelian ethics.

MacIntyre, A., After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1985). In this book MacIntyre provides us with the first outline of his account of the virtues.

Murdoch, I., The Sovereignty of Good (London: Ark, 1985)

Williams, B., Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1985).

As we can readily see, these were written in the latter part of the 20th century, with the exception of Anscombe who published his call for virtue ethics in 1958. The virtue ethicists have had a significant influence because the idea of doing the right thing is deeply embedded in our (western) cultural consciousness by means of literature, television, and movies.  

What do you think? Should a Christian approach to ethics follow the line of moral reasoning that the virtue ethicists do? Or is our call to morality something else? Join the discussion!