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Holy Smoke and Holy Saturday
Holy Smoke and Holy Saturday
The primary liturgical symbols are those objects that have long been part of Catholic worship tradition. They include altar, ambo, cross, bread, wine, font, water, oil, paschal candle, Book of Gospels, incense, liturgical colour and vestments. These symbols are not decorative accoutrements but are present to support our ritual prayer.
There is one item in this list that I imagine practising Catholics seldom if ever see used in worship – and that is incense. As Professor Julius Sumner Miller used to ask: Why is this so?
My guess is that the baby got thrown out with the bathwater when unnecessary and repetitive accretions that had become part of the Tridentine Mass were removed from the Order of Mass after the second Vatican Council. The “bells and smells” aspect of Catholic worship, long associated with High Mass, disappeared in many places.
One of the important principles set out in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is that worship is enhanced when it appeals to all our senses. The smell of incense is a tangible reminder of the presence of God in worship; it is God’s grace “olfactorally incarnate”.
The use of incense in worship appeals to the eye as well as the nose. The smoke of incense rising into the air symbolises our prayer ascending to God: “Let my prayer rise like incense before you”.
Incense is a symbol of prayer, a means of purification and a sign of reverence. At funerals, incense is used to honour the body of the deceased, which through baptism became the temple of the Holy Spirit. It also symbolises the community’s prayers for the deceased rising to the throne of God.
There are several occasions when incense can help the assembly engage with the ritual action. At Mass, it could be used during the entrance procession, to incense the altar, to honour the Word of God at the proclamation of the gospel, to reverence the gifts, altar, priest and people as part of the preparation of the gifts and at the showing of the blessed elements after the consecration.
At Morning and Evening Prayer, incense may be used during the gospel canticles or to precede or accompany the praying of the classic evening psalm quoted above.
With Pentecost only a few weeks away, liturgy planners might consider having the assembly join in one of the many sung settings of Veni, Sancte Spiritus (‘Come, Holy Spirit’) as the Gospel Book is carried through the assembly accompanied by candles and incense, culminating in the joyful acclamation: “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Alleluia!”
On another matter, I had several calls last week asking whether I could do something about news readers describing the bulk coal carrier Shen Neng 1 as having run aground on ‘Easter Saturday’ when in fact the incident happened a week earlier than that, on Holy Saturday!
I surrender on this one! If reporters, sporting bodies and other organisations are going to use Christian feasts as date descriptors, at least they should check to make sure they get them right, but I am at a loss to know how to get the message across!