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St Augustine on The Incarnation

The Incarnation

When we ponder the wonder of the Incarnation, we can find ourselves at a loss for words to express the wonder of that event. St Augustine wrote a profound selection in what we know today as Sermon 191. It was a message for his church, especially for those who had chosen to be nuns, on a Christmas Day. I offer it to you for your meditation and encouragement this Christmas season. See also a brief meditation on the Incarnation by Roy Clouser.

St Augustine on the Incarnation

“The Word of the Father, by Whom all time was created, was made flesh and was born in time for us. He, without whose divine permission no day completes its course, wished to have one day set aside for His human birth.

In the bosom of His Father, He existed before all the cycles of ages; born of an earthly mother, He entered upon the course of the years on this day.

The Maker of man became Man that He, Ruler of the stars, might be nourished at His mother’s breast;

Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem

that He, the Bread, might hunger;

that He, the Fountain, might thirst;

that He, the Light, might sleep;

that He, the Way, might be wearied by the journey;

that He, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses;

that He, the Judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge;

that He, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust;

that He, Discipline, might be scourged with whips;

that He, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross;

that Courage might be weakened;

that Healer might be wounded;

that Life might die.

To endure these and similar indignities for us, to free us, unworthy creatures, He who existed as the Son of God before all ages, without a beginning, deigned to become the Son of Man in these recent years. He did this although He who submitted to such great evils for our sake had done no evil and although we, who were the recipients of so much good at His hands, had done nothing to merit these benefits. Begotten by the Father, He was not made by the Father. He was made Man in the mother whom He Himself had made, so that He might exist here for a while, sprung from her who could never and nowhere have existed except through His power.”

–Augustine of Hippo, Sermons 184-229: Sermons on Liturgical Seasons (Edmund Hill O.P. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 191.1.

 

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.