What is the essence of worship? Why does worship matter? How does it "work"?
This Sunday I would like to present you with an ancient, yet instructive metaphor of incense burning. It is an old religious practice shared by diverse religious traditions all around the world. It nicely visualizes, perhaps we should even say sensualizes, and explains the act of worship.
A ribbon of smoke rises from a burned stick of incense. At that moment it is clearly localized in time and space, visually connecting the below and the above. Soon it disappears from the naked eye, yet it becomes even more potent. In this dispersed form it infuses and permeates the surrounding space. It is exactly in this invisible form that it is most effective and powerful. The fragrance fills the air; it fights out unpleasant odors and repels irritating insects. Subliminally (through our most archaic and least understood sense of smell) it endows worship time and space with a characteristic feeling and special fragrance. Recent research has even found in some incense smoke certain aromatic compounds with possible mild neuro-active properties which might help people to relax, concentrate and start to understand.
In our Jewish and Christian tradition (in the Old as well as New Testaments) incense is particularly associated with an act of prayer. And as I said, the burning of incense is for me primarily a metaphor. Incense is not magic, it does not “work” automatically (ex opere operato - by doing it). It helps us to visualize and imagine an act of worship in its broader ramifications. First it is localized in time and space. At that moment it is usually discernible, but soon it disappears from sight but permeates the broader space, before it completely dissipates and blows out, gently asking us to repeat the act or ritual. Worship and prayer are just like that, they impacts the worshiper or worshiping community, but they also have much broader effect metaphorically, intangibly, mysteriously infusing and transforming the entire social atmosphere.
Come this Sunday to experience and discern and be inspired by this ancient worship practice.