Thursday after Ash Wednesday
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.
Prayer as offering
In a previous parish a member of the congregation donated a thurible for the burning of incense. It’s that thing the priest or acolyte swings as they pass through the congregation and as they mark the altar or, at funerals, the casket. It didn’t go over well when we tried to use it. And when I urged a colleague to go easy with the incense at a joint service one afternoon, he promptly rebuked the congregation saying that they better get used to it because the only alternative was sulfur. He added that this was the way God marked his people, just as a dog marks his territory. I don’t think it helped.
Its not hard to imagine that, in a world before deodorant, ripe with the aromas of the street, incense played a vital role in marking some spaces as holy. And I can imagine the poet watching the rising smoke and seeing there a metaphor of the community’s rising prayers. Incense was a valuable substance, and offering it to God was a precious gift. But I suspect the poet understood that what was truly precious in the eyes of God was not the incense, but the prayers – the thanksgivings, the praises, the petitions, the turning of our lives in faithful adherence to the one who is compassion and mercy and life.