“For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are
perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (Corinthians 2:15).
Why, we are asked frequently, do you use incense in your worship? Those whose faith comes exclusively from the Holy Bible demand to know: Where in sacred scriptures are Christians encouraged to use incense? In answer we might point to the above reference. The Orthodox are wafting aloft the fragrance of salvation and life among the dead and dying. More than at any other time it is made manifest at funerals and requiems.
The sense of incense, therefore, is to add a dimension of worship not always recognized—the aromatic element, which is for human beings little more than a catalyst to taste and disposition. It points to the most significant part of ourselves, that aspect that is hidden by our bodies called the soul. Yet that term is somewhat deceptive. We were made whole beings, though at death the part of us which is merely material returns to the earth, disintegrates like all matter. But that’s not the end. The connection between body and soul, however, continues in some form. A soul without a body is merely a ghost or phantom.
Our real selves, or if we may state it thus, “what really matters,” does not disintegrate. Decay has a distinctive odor about it, the stench of decomposition. Even the terms we use to express what no longer fulfills the gift of living—words like “rotten” or “corrupt”—are used to describe persons who are unconcerned to uphold the principle of life, growth, health, beauty in others, but are bent on destroying all forms of life around them, even including themselves. They become enemies of life and archenemies of Jesus Christ, the supreme Giver of life, as well as those who proclaim and live by His holy name. For them, any talk of a life fulfilled or of a meaningful existence beyond the grave is only a deceptive lie. How dare we pretend that we really believe in some promise that what is buried is not really dead once for all and forever? That Somebody Who is offering it was not able to free Himself from the humiliating death on the Cross?
We answer by inviting them to see in the censer the symbol of death redeemed and made wondrously fragrant. What are those tiny pellets dropped on the red hot charcoal, but a myriad of dead petals taken from aromatic flower petals and crushed into drops of sweet-smelling liquid. What good are wilted cut flowers several days after they are severed from their stalks, but to be thrown out. Snipped and trimmed, garnered into a variety of attractive displays for a few days, whether to adorn a casket or on happier occasions to enhance the joy of a celebration, they are fit for nothing but to be thrown away into the rubbish or placed on the brown mud and clay of a fresh grave to turn fetid and smelly in decomposition.
The Church proclaims with each pendulous swing of the censer’s chains the redemption of what was dead. If God in Christ can redeem dead flowers, bringing fragrant scents out of lifeless petals, how much more can He accomplish, with the aid of rational creatures that are capable of at least attempting to discern what He is working out in creation?
Whatever in us that truly lives, exuding the fragrance of life like the blossoms in springtime will never know an autumn of decomposition and death. Those alive in Christ experience an everlasting seedtime of continual growth in faith, trust, hope, confidence, understanding, compassion, awareness, optimism, love, and joy. For them this world is a mere cocoon destined to release the true self on radiant, pure, glorious wings to a world alive with the fragrance of the Holy Trinity.