Cathedral View: Trying to make cense of it all
Canon Missioner Sarah Brown:
It has been a busy couple of months at the cathedral. Abseiling and Royal Weddings apart, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost (Whit Sunday) festivals are all good excuses for a bit of a do.
In Cathedral terms this means dressing up in ginormous red cloaks fastened with rhinestone-cowboy buckles and embroidered with scary faceless angels, not unlike the ones on Dr Who.
It also means employing ‘smoke’ as we call it, rather as a pre-teen might use the term ‘coke’. I should probably clarify that the liturgical use of the word ‘smoke’ is not an abbreviation of ‘Smoca Cola’ but the cool insiders’ code for incense.
If you have not encountered incense it is scented resin burnt over hot coals in a device called a “thurible” which looks like a silver ostrich egg on a chain and which emits clouds of fragrant smoke when swung through the air.
In the right hands it evokes holiness and it is used here a few times a year on particularly special festivals to bring extra solemnity and otherness to worship.
It adds drama and appeals to all the senses, especially if no one remembers to deactivate the smoke alarms before deployment.
I love the smell and the sight of evening sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows defusing through the lingering incense, although it has taken me a while to overcome my Personal Prejudices to see and smell its merits.
There is an art to using a thurible. I have only used a small one and was told by a kindly observer that I looked as if I was shovelling muck. Apparently you don’t need to put your whole body behind the swing. It all hangs on subtle wrist action and getting the length of the chain long enough to swing but short enough to retain control. The real swingers (“Thurifers”) can do whizzy tricks like swinging it over their heads. Novices like me are too frightened of decapitating the Dean or hitting the altar and bursting the egg open to scatter burning coals hither and yon. This is a particular fear when we use the serious bit of kit called Puffing Billy, which is not so much an ostrich egg but the sort of egg that might contain a dragon and holds sufficient coals for a family barbecue and potential to incinerate the altar linen.
This is not my tradition but it has potential to be brought into some Liturgical Olympics. I’m thinking ‘Synchronised Censing’ in which multiple thurifers swing their thuribles in complex patterns maintaining perfect coordination. Or perhaps a single thurifer might wield multiple thuribles, emitting different coloured smokes like the Red Arrows. Heck, why not go the whole hog and bring the real Red Arrows in to cense the whole building and all of central Peterborough from 15,000 feet in the air?
As usual my sense of the ridiculous is running riot. I do apologise.
The truth is that incense is a bit like marmite-gas. Some people love it in worship and others loathe it. It is, like so many things in life, a matter of what you understand by it. This makes it in itself neither inherently right nor inherently wrong. God sees the intention and the heart and if those are proud, idolatrous or self-centred then I suspect that neither incense nor lack of incense will make any difference.