Holy Smoke

It has been pouring with rain today. But it doesn’t deter the pilgrim and once again the Cathedral was full for the Pilgrim Mass at noon. Yesterday I sat in the nave, today I was in the north transept. Again the team of tiraboleiros arrived and after the Prayer after Communion the ropes were loosened and the great thurible lowered. Again, as yesterday, there was great excitement.  The priests put incense into the Botafumeiro and the huge thing was jerked and swung into action. Throughout the congregation mobile phones were being held up recording the spectacle – mine amongst them. A visiting choir in blue cassocks and sparkling surplices sang as the thurible swept over our heads until, gradually, it was brought back to hang above the sanctuary.

Like votive candles, thuribles and incense seem to be far less contentious than they once were. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales is often attributed as releasing many in church from the fear of lighting candles and praying for the dead. I’m not sure what a relaxation towards incense might be associated with. Is it travelling, going to places where it is accepted as part of worship?  Is it the ‘new age’ willingness to embrace many traditions? Is it something to do with a general sense of wanting to engage our whole selves in life, all our senses? Is it that some new Christians don’t know what they should be offended by?

I was brought up in a church where we used incense every Sunday and at every Feast Day. If you were going to be an altar server than you had to begin, serve your apprenticeship, as a Boat Boy (and they were boys in those days). The Boat Boy was the only one in our church in a red cassock, a tiny one, with a little white cotta and wearing white gloves. You began your apprenticeship when you were three or four.  Your job was to hold the boat, the silver, boat-shaped container for the incense.  The thurifer led you, one of his hands held the thurible the other was on your shoulder to guide you around. All you had to remember to do was to hand the boat to the priest, to bow when the thurifer bowed and to never leave his side. It was a great apprenticeship, a a way of learning ‘sanctuary sense’ – how you behaved in the sanctuary – never crossing your legs, never talking, picking your nose, yawning or looking more than moderately bored.  And of course you quickly became used to smelling incense and not coughing!

For those not from that tradition seeing a thurible emerge, seeing smoke, often leads to a bout of coughing, the fear of ‘popery’ and a sense that this isn’t very CofE. But oten when we are away we feel safe enough to experience something out of the ordinary. We might not order Octopus at home but will happily eat Pulpo in Santiago – and enjoy it! So I hope that the obvious delight on faces at the Pilgrim Mass is not just because of the spectacle but because there is something wonderfully mysterious and engaging about the ‘Holy Smoke’.

I suppose for me, having been brought up in this way, the smell is evocative of worship.  But, I hope, there is something deeper than that.  There is the tradition that it is a form of offering, a sweet smelling savour before the Lord; that the smoke rises as do our prayers and that it is representative of the prayer being offered. There is a sense in which it signifies those ‘holy’ moments in a holy act – the arrival at the altar, the reading of the gospel, the receiving of the gifts, the sanctifying of the gathered people, the Dominical words in the Eucharistic Prayer. But for me there is something more powerful than all of that.


‘The cloud covered the tent of meeting’

In these weeks after Easter we are travelling from captivity to freedom with the children of Israel and reading about the way in which they established the tabernacle in the wilderness, the precursor of the Temple.  In the accounts of that we read this

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40.34-35)

As the Pillar of Cloud had signified the presence of the Lord on the journey, as the cloud on the mountain signified the divine appearing, so with the tabernacle. As Isaiah said in his experience of God ‘and the temple was filled with smoke’ (Isaiah 6.4), so it is with our holy places. Perhaps I need such signs, such ‘physical’ manifestations, such sacraments and sacramentals to support my faith – but I may not be alone.

I looked around the crowded cathedral, looks of delight as the smoke filled the tabernacle.  People had arrived at a holy place and, however we signify it, all our churches are holy places, the goal of pilgrimage each Sunday, each day, and whatever spectacle, of action, word, music, prayer, whatever ordinary experience of a shaken hand, of a warm welcome, of a chat over coffee, of delight at the work of the children, we make the presence of God with us known.

Holy God, come inhabit our space, fill us with an awareness of your presence and sanctify your world and our lives, that we too may be a fragrant offering to you. Amen.