By: Ivonne J. Hernandez
“The offering of an incense is a generous and beautiful rite. The bright grains of incense are laid upon the red-hot charcoal, the censer is swung, and the fragrant smoke rises in clouds. In the rhythm and the sweetness there is a musical quality; and like music also is the entire lack of practical utility: it is a prodigal waste of precious material. It is a pouring out of unwithholding love.” - Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs
Whenever I attend a Mass where incense is used, my senses help increase my awareness of the invisible reality present at that moment. I can almost see the silhouettes of angels and saints in the smoke all around the altar, bowing before the presence of God. And when the minister turns towards us, the congregation, and proceeds to bow and incense us, the reality of who we are is clear before my eyes. “But you are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises’ of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Pet 2:9)
I attended a Catholic high school, and whenever the nuns were around, the behavior of the students changed. If a foul word escaped someone’s mouth in front of one of the nuns, they would immediately and instinctively be embarrassed and apologize. There was this sense of the sisters’ ears being more sensitive than ours, like we would hurt them or profane them with our worldliness. It is easy for us to be aware of the “holy” or “set apart” status of a priest wearing his clerics, or a religious wearing their habit, but we are all holy, consecrated, set apart for a purpose. “By Baptism, (the baptized) share in the priesthood of Christ, in his prophetic and royal mission” (CCC, 1268). How often do we think of this? Probably not often enough. If we allowed the full reality of our identity in Christ to permeate our minds and hearts our lives would have to change.
If the land where Jesus walked is holy, how much more holy is the person in which the Holy Trinity dwells? We need to guard our eyes, our ears and our tongues. We need to make conscious decisions of what movies we watch, what conversations we listen to and what thoughts we give a voice to. We need to strive to live lives of integrity, where each aspect of our being is aligned towards love of God and neighbor: “Charity is the soul of the holiness to which all are called” (CCC, 826). In this way our whole lives will become an offering of praise, rising to God as incense, “a pouring out of unwithholding love.” This is the gift we bring to the altar. And when we receive from that same altar the Body and Blood of Jesus in return, we will have everything we need to fulfill our “prophetic and royal mission”: to announce the praises of Him who called us “out of darkness into His wonderful light.”