Wednesday, 11 December 2013

We offer Thee incense...?

This post is more of an open question which will probably interest very few people, and to which I do not know the answer. Among Eastern Orthodox, the use of incense in personal prayer at home is a very common practice and, in my over-keen teen-convert days, my room often looked like something out of a cypress-scented Cheech and Chong movie. As such, I was quite surprised to discover that in Cyprus – where, despite centuries of foreign occupation and plenty of Western influence, many ancient traditions are preserved which have been lost elsewhere – the use of incense in the home is a novel practice, not known to the older generations. Dried olive leaves are used, but incense is strictly for church.

The practice is also largely unknown among laypeople in the Oriental Orthodox churches (another repository of ancient liturgical traditions now lost to us). While in the Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) tradition, only a priest can bless the incense, the Oriental churches also maintain the older tradition whereby only the priest may apply incense to the thurible. The word “thurible” itself derives, via French and Latin, from the Greek “θύειν”, meaning “to sacrifice.” Someone with better knowledge of Greek than I will have to confirm whether the Greek “θυμίαμα” (incense) derives from the same root. However, when the priest blesses the incense, the notion of sacrifice is clear: “We offer Thee incense, O Christ our God, for a savour of spiritual fragrance. Having accepted it at Thy heavenly altar, send down upon us in return the grace of Thine all-holy Spirit.” The Liturgy of St. James, which contains several longer prayers for the blessing of incense, brings this out even more clearly. To sacrifice, as we know, is the prerogative of the priesthood. Laypeople may bring offerings – bread, wine, wheat, oil, incense – but it is the priest who blesses and the priest who offers.

The incense used in private devotion is not blessed, so it is not, strictly speaking, a case of laypeople taking upon themselves the roles which belong exclusively to the priesthood, but in that case, is it an “offering”? If so, in what sense? Perhaps in the same way that the oil in ones votive lamp, lit while at prayer (or constantly), is an offering, but the role of incense in worship is something much more substantial than a mere sign of devotion, and certainly more than a religious mood-setter or liturgical air freshener. It is an act of sacrifice.

This is not a question about “right or wrong”, but I’m hoping someone can satisfy my nerdy curiosity as to when the use of incense among the laity became widespread and normative, and whether it arose as something completely unrelated to the use of incense in church (and later became identified with it) or if it was a borrowing (perhaps inappropriately) by the laity of a priestly liturgical function. In the latter case, might it stem from the now common malpractice, particularly in the Greek tradition, of allowing altar-servers (or sometimes any random man in the congregation) to cense during the Great Entrance or when being handed the censer by a priest or deacon?[1]

Thoughts anyone?

[1] Strictly speaking, use of the censer is not permitted to anyone below the rank of deacon, nor mere handling of the censer by anyone below the rank of subdeacon.

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