When you attend a church service like our main service, to paraphrase Jerry Lee Lewis ‘ there’s a whole lotta blessing going on.’ Incense is blessed before the service, twice more during it, and that incense is then used to bless the altar, the bread and the wine, the cross, the people etc,
And of course the service always finishes with a verbal blessing of the congregation by the priest.
But although in the main service everything is more dramatic and explicit in the way it highlights blessing, obviously, it does not follow that the early service and those who attend are somehow less blessed-second rate worshippers with their second rate service- in both senses of the word.
It would be very odd to think that there is something inferior about an incense free service.
How we understand blessing is key.
Our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy is all about blessing. Moses is addressing the people of Israel as, after years of wandering in the wilderness, they stand on the margins of the promised land. But his message is not one of undiluted triumph and optimism- ‘ you’ve made it at last.’ His words are hopeful but have a warning attached.
God he says has set before you.
Life and prosperity but also death and adversity.
Blessings, but curses to.
Moses’ message here repeats itself again and again throughout the Old Testament- it is that God has made you- all people- for good- for life- for compassion- for fulfilment etc. but you don’t always choose that path- you will make the wrong choices.
The same message is there in the story in Genesis of the creation of Adam and Eve.
In the Old Testament- First chapter of God’s dealings with humanity-The Law and the prophets provided the guidelines and the wisdom that help people return to the straight and narrow.
But at the root of everything is the fundamentally good creation gifted by God- the original blessing, as some have called it.
Christianity took that idea on.
Turn to page 5 of your order of service.
We find it expressed on page 5 of the service- right at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, and where we also explicitly use the language of blessing; because our existence and nature is something which we are grateful to God for and therefore wish to express our praise to Him. To lift up our hearts and to give thanks for.
Blessed are you, Lord God,
Our light and our salvation;
To you be glory and praise for ever.
From the beginning you have created all things and all your works echo the silent music of your praise. In the fullness of time you made us in your image, the crown of all creation.
Unfortunately, that crown just keeps on slipping.
Which is why that great prayer shortly changes gear, from the blessing of the gift of life to our need of God’s steadfast and active compassion.
As a mother tenderly gathers her creation, you embraced a people as your own. When they turned away and rebelled your love remained steadfast.
And then moves on to Jesus. Another, decisive gift from God; a blessing which enables true reconciliation and salvation; what we can’t achieve for ourselves or by ourselves.
The rest of the Eucharistic prayer recaps how this happens which is why we all respond at the end of that prayer with the words.
Blessing and honour and glory and power be yours for ever . Amen.
It can be a bit confusing at times but blessing clearly is a 2 way street. It describes what God has done for us and continually offers to us, and also what we feel in response. As He blesses us, we wish to bless him in gratitude.
But a third element needs a mention too. I referred to it when I preached a couple of weeks ago- calling or vocation. What we are for- what something is ultimately for. That is one of the reasons that we can bless incense and people.
Let me try to explain?
Unseen by most people in church we bless the incense in the vestry before the service begins. There are different ways of doing this. Joy and I will make the sign of the cross over it and pray internally something like this- Be blessed by him in whose honour you shall be burned.
The incense we use in church has been made by monks and nuns from the gum of various trees- frankincense is a key ingredient.
When it is harvested in Asia or North Africa it is already destined to be used as scent, but its exact purpose is not fixed.
When it falls into the hands of the incense makers its purpose becomes more defined, but its ultimate destination is not known.
But when we use it becomes special for us- as it helps us honour the good news of the gospel, celebrate the bread and wine and all the people here in this community. So its purpose is refined.
When we bless it we don’t fundamentally change it, but we do set it apart for a special and exalted purpose; and one which ultimately has its source in God as it is part of creation.
Isn’t that the way it is for us when we come together to worship?
We come to reflect on the blessing we receive from God, and express our blessing in praise and thanks, but we also come to receive the blessing of becoming- refinding, rather than refining, ourselves; to go back into God’s world as a blessing to it. – quote prayer after communion- both of them.
Send us out in the power of your spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.
We who the spirit lights give light to the world.