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prayer: our deepest longing

The Symbolism of Incense

Incense image: Wikimedia CommonsWhy Incense in Church Ceremonies? 

Q. Would you explain why the priest uses incense at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and other ceremonies?

A. The use of incense goes far back in time. The reference books tell us that incense was in common use in Near East countries, burnt for its perfume. Are they suggesting incense was an ancient kind of air freshener? From a secular use it passed into religious service. Pagans employed it in worship of their gods. According to one source, at a fete in honor of Baal the Babylonians burned 1,000 talents of frankincense. Incense also played a part in honor given to kings and the Roman emperor.

And among the gifts of the Magi was frankincense—a gift worthy of a king. Illustrations of altars of incense can be found in the St. Joseph edition of the New American Bible.

Already in the Book of Exodus there is reference to incense. In Chapter 30, Moses is told to make an altar of acacia wood for the burning of incense and Aaron is to burn incense morning and evening. Also, in Exodus 30:34-38 Moses is given a formula for incense to be used solely in the worship of Yahweh. It is to be made of equal parts of storax, onycha, galbanum and frankincense, blended and ground into fine dust. The incense is to be placed before the Commandments in the meeting tent. Elsewhere in the Old Testament incense was often burnt in connection with the burnt offerings of animals.

The sweet smell of incense and its rising smoke gave it a kind of natural symbolism. It became the image of something pleasing to God. The rising smoke came to symbolize a person’s or people’s prayers rising up to God. So in Psalm 141 we have the plea, “Let my prayer come like incense before you.”

Early Christians also found symbolic meaning in the use of incense. In the Book of Revelation, for instance, John has a vision of heaven and a kind of heavenly liturgy where the 24 elders worship the lamb that was slain. The elders hold harps and gold bowls filled with incense, “which are the prayers of the holy ones” (5:8). In Revelation 8:3-4 an angel holding a gold censer is given a great quantity of incense to offer and the smoke of the incense goes up before God with prayers.

So, among Christians today, incense has ritual and symbolic meaning. Its sweet aroma symbolizes something pleasing and acceptable being offered to God.

Burning incense is also a sign of reverence and dedication. Incensing the body at a funeral Mass is a sign of reverence for the body that was once the temple of God. In a more solemn liturgy, incensing the Book of Gospels indicates reverence for the word of God and Christ himself who is the Word Incarnate. Incensing the altar shows respect for Christ whom the altar represents and his sacrifice made present upon the altar. Incensing the Easter candle is, again, a sign of reverence for Christ who is the light of the world. Incensing the Blessed Sacrament at Benediction is a sign of adoration and worship given to Christ, truly present upon the altar. It becomes a sign of our prayers rising to heaven.

How to Reconcile John and Matthew on Jesus’ Mission

Q. We were discussing the Gospel (Matthew 9:36—10:8) read on the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time last year. Matthew writes about Jesus’ missionary discourse. The Twelve Apostles are restricted in their mission when Jesus says, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” Later Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Only after the death and resurrection of Jesus does the mission extend to non-Jews and Samaritans (Matthew 28:19).

But then the question came up about the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in the Samaritan town of Sychar (John 4:1-42). We are told that Jesus stayed with the Samaritans for two days and through his own spoken word many came to faith. This account strongly reflects the Church’s post-resurrection mission to Samaria as described in Acts 8:4-25. We are left in a dilemma, not knowing how to reconcile these two opposite Gospels by Matthew and John. Would you be so kind as to comment?

Q. Start with the realization that each Gospel has its own author, intended audience and purpose. Each author tells Jesus’ story from his own viewpoint, selecting and recounting events and sayings in Jesus’ life to make his points and convey the lessons he wishes.

Further, the Gospels were written after the death and resurrection of Christ. The evangelist told the story of Jesus in the light of post-resurrection events and faith. He described past events with knowledge and understanding that came from the present or future.

There can hardly be any doubt that Jesus saw his mission during his lifetime as directed to the Jews. As Alexander Jones in The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Sheed and Ward) puts it, “Israel was to be the first beneficiary of the messianic offer, Romans 1:16; so the apostles are not yet to walk the roads leading to non-Jewish districts–neither northwards to pagan Syria nor south to Samaria, mixed in population and diluted in Yahwism….”

After the Resurrection the mission of Jesus passes from Israel to the whole world. In the passage in John concerning the Samaritan woman, commentators see a kind of “prophetic future.” It looks forward to the command of Jesus at the end of Matthew (28:19-20) to make disciples of all nations and the words of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles at the time of the Ascension, Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses to Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The same is true of the incident with the Caananite woman in Matthew 15. The personal concern of Jesus is his mission to Israel. Yielding to the woman’s plea looks forward to the Church’s mission after the crucifixion, says Daniel Harrington, S.J., in The Collegeville Bible Commentary on Matthew.

I think you might compare the incident with the Samaritan woman to other actions of Christ in the Gospels. When his mother comes to him at the wedding feast of Cana pleading the case of the couple who have run out of wine, Jesus pronounces that his hour has not yet come. But, moved by the plea and faith of Mary, he acts. When he encounters a Samaritan among the 10 lepers, he heals (Luke 17:11-19), even though his mission is to Israel and not to Samaritans. Moved by the faith of a gentile centurion, Jesus heals the man’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13) in anticipation of the graces to come through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

What Does Reparation Mean?

Q. I am a young adult and a devout Catholic. Do you have any books, booklets, leaflets, prayers or pamphlets on Prayers of Reparation?

Please explain to me what reparation is, and please give me ideas or examples to make reparation to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

A. In general, reparation means repairing or making up for damages done. For example, after World War I, Germany was made to pay reparations for damages done to France and Great Britain in the war. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation a person who has done an injustice to another will be required to make reparation, if that is possible. One who has slandered or libeled another is required to repair the damage done to that person’s reputation. A thief is required to make reparation by restitution–paying back or returning the money or property stolen.

In a spiritual sense, we sinners make reparation for our sins and the sins of others through voluntary acts of penance or works of piety and devotion done in the spirit of reparation.

To make reparation for acts of blasphemy and profanity, Catholics recite the divine praises (“Blessed be God, Blessed be his holy name,” etc.), especially after Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as promoted by Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, calls for prayers and acts of reparation as well as Communions (especially on First Fridays) received in the spirit of reparation and atonement.

The old Roman Raccolta contained prayers of reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. So do some prayer manuals and books of prayers and devotions in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The present Enchiridion of Indulgences (which superseded theRaccolta) contains an Act of Reparation, “Most Sweet Jesus,” which carries with its recitation a partial indulgence, whenever it is prayed, and a plenary indulgence, if it is publicly re-cited on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

And the Roman Ordo (a calendar and daily guide with directives for the celebration of the liturgy) reminds pastors that Pope Pius XI required special prayers on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. In all churches there is to take place a re-newal of consecration to the Sacred Heart, and a prayer of consecration and reparation is to be recited. Also, the Litany of the Sacred Heart is to be prayed during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

St. Anthony Messenger