Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Use of Incense Has Unsavory Past

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Use of Incense Has Unsavory Past

Article excerpt

We Christians should stop using incense in our liturgies. Accustomed to clouds of holy smoke wafting heavenward during the most solemn parts of worship, we've made incense as essential as vestments and candles. Though the roots of incense run deep in our tradition, it seems to conflict with several basic tenets of our faith.

Originating in worship systems that engaged in animal sacrifice, incense was used to cover the stench of burning flesh, which usually disgusts people and would have driven people from sacred shrines. Since early Judaism engaged in animal sacrifices, it eventually adopted the practices of its pagan neighbors and integrated incense into its liturgies.

Incense fulfilled other functions in pagan rituals. Ancient people, for instance, presumed their gods weren't interested in their lives or problems. The gods lived lives of leisure, shielded from the problems of mere humans. The faithful had to use incense (and other gimmicks) to get their gods' attention. Worshipers believed the sweet smell of incense breached the barriers of privacy that the gods had constructed around themselves. The plan was simple. The gods would start sniffing and then search for the aroma's source. Finally, they would discover those who had sent the incense heavenward. Even generous, suppliant humans had to be noticed before their requests would be granted. Sacred smoke guaranteed a sacred response.

Incense also created atmosphere. It produced clouds. Our ancestors believed the gods normally resided above the clouds. The heavy clouds of incense produced at the shrines gave the impression believers were standing in the cloudy precincts of heaven.

Some worshipers used incense as godbait. If people could convince the gods their clouds had descended onto the surface of the earth, they might be inclined to visit the place, knowing their cover literally wouldn't be blown. …

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