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Matthew 2:1-12 – The Epiphany of the Lord – for January 6, 2013

“…wise men from the east came to Jerusalem…” (Matthew 2:1)

Seven years ago, I wondered if the priest burned frankincense or myrrh for the incense.

I didn’t wonder why I was there watching that priest. There being a place I did not want to be. There being a time of grief with unfathomable sorrow. There being an infant’s memorial service, occurring only two days after Christmas.

A parent experiencing the death of a child is as unfair as it gets and few can stand with them and say, “I understand what you are going through.”

The memorial service was held in the Catholic Church where the child’s parents were members. I was not there to help lead the service, but to support the grieving family with my presence. The grandparents were my friends and I couldn’t not be with them.

And so I watched, and so I also felt disoriented.

Now, 500 and more years after Martin Luther’s reformation, and the separation between the Catholic and the protesting—or Protestant—church, clear differences remain in how the two branches of Christianity worship.

The use of incense is one small difference.

At a key point in the mass, the priest lighted a censer (the metal container where the incense is burned) to ritualistically disperse the scent.

How strange for this Protestant nose to be filled with the distinctive, room-filling odor. The smell stays with you. And that, I assume, is part of its purpose, part of its sensual, inexplicable power.

In all of our inadequate ways to discern where the Holy One fits in the human times of tremendous hope or terrible sorrow, using the sense of smell has its role.

We humans are sensual creatures. We respond to what we see, hear, feel and smell. Yes, we Protestants may shake our heads in amusement about the Catholics’ peculiar use of “bells and smells” in their worship, but those ancient rituals can connect to some of our needs. Continue reading →