I love symbols in church worship: incense, bells, music, images, poetry, architecture, procession, vestments… But why? Why bother with all of this tat and guff?
When I was growing up, I used to love to watch the old MGM musicals. Escapism in Glorious Technicolour and Debbie Reynolds. Good Times.
One of my favourites was, and still is, Singin’ in the Rain. I love that moment when Gene Kelly realises he is so blindingly and obviously in love that he can’t just talk about it. He has to sing about. The guys needs to sing.
Such is the wonder of his love, however, that singing simply isn’t enough – even in the rain. So he goes one step further to release all that’s going on in his life, and he dances. To be honest, if I didn’t lack any sense of co-ordination, there would have been times in my life when I would have danced, too. But people tend to get hurt when I dance.
The words, the music and the dancing all come together to express something that he feels and thinks. They’re the way that he is communicating his thoughts, and the three things together do a better job than just one of them on their own.
So it is with the use of symbols when attempting to speak of the Divine and other things of ultimate importance.
Over the millennia, the church has developed certain ways that attempt to speak of God that go beyond words. These ways have become established because, it has been felt, they do so in a way that is more helpful than other ways.
So, for example, on Ash Wednesday, why do we ‘ash’? Also, why might a church use incense, when really it just makes everyone cough?
I believe that, in being ashed, a person undergoes the humility of coming face to face with what we are: dust. This way of coming face-to-face with our own mortality brings feelings to the surface that, in everyday life, we try to keep to buried. This very simple symbol asks enormous questions deep within us.
Just as profound is the use of incense. How can words alone communicate the presence of God? Surely, we need more than that. So we use music to compliment, add to and even correct the words. But this is God, of whom we are attempting to speak, so we need even more than that – and one of those things that is of immense value is incense.
The purpose of incense is to awaken all of the senses to the presence of God. As the smoke surrounds us and curls around the rafters it demonstrates through sight and smell, along with the words and music, that God is here. As we cense the Gospel, we see that God is present in the writing, reading and hearing of the good news. The censing of the altar and consecrated bread and wine bring all of our senses in-line with the actions of the President and, most importantly, the words of Christ himself. This takes us back to the Upper Room, forward, to his coming again, and more deeply into our own time, in the very real presence of Christ and all the company of heaven.
Symbols allow our whole selves to engage with this mystery in a way that words on their own cannot. Just as ashing and incense convey humility to a congregation, so the classical symbols of the church can be used to humble the contemporary church’s logorrhea:
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.’ (Eliot)