I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me; give ear to my voice when I call to you. Let my prayer be counted
as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice (Psalm 141:1-2).
I never understood incense. In the Lutheran churches where I grew up, it was rarely, if ever, used. I had questions about the “whys and hows” of incense. Did the different smells signify anything? Was there a particular way to spread the incense? What did it mean?
I grew up singing hymns and hearing the passage from Psalms about incense rising, but I never made the connection between prayer and incense—until I traveled halfway across the world to a cathedral in Santiago, Spain.
Every day pilgrims make their way to mass in the Gothic cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Many of those in attendance have traveled by foot for days, and sometimes months, to worship at this grand cathedral. For some, the goal is to sit at the feet of the relics of James the apostle. For others, it’s a chance to intentionally take time to deepen their relationship with God.
At age 25, I was one of those pilgrims who walked (33 days) to worship. I literally fell down upon arriving at the cathedral, exhaustion and awe overwhelming me. Caked in sweat and dirt, I dropped my backpack and sat in a pew as others continued to file in quietly. The organ played softly in the background. Tears and smiles mingled on the faces of everyone who entered.
As the bell tolled, signaling the beginning of worship, six priests came forward with incense. But not just any incense—a large urn of it, requiring the strength of all six priests to be swung back and forth through the massive cathedral.
From where I sat, I could see and smell the powerful scent covering each of us as we worshiped. It filled the building, blending with our silent prayers, the smoke floating, intertwining, becoming part of everyone. At that moment, I didn’t feel alone. I felt connected to others present, not because we had known each other but because we all received the incense falling upon us; because our prayers were offered together.
That day worshiping in Spain may still be the experience that helped me best understand prayer—the incense reminding me that the prayers I offer are lifted up and carried into this world to be held by a community.
Lent is another time when I feel deeply connected to others through prayer.
Not a solitary endeavor
Lent is another time when I feel deeply connected to others through prayer. When the season begins with death, where else is there to go but to our knees in prayer? On Ash Wednesday, we hear the words “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” When we receive the ashen cross on our forehead, we can look up and see our neighbors and friends bearing that same cross. Our lives and our deaths are bound together with the cross of Christ. So are our prayers.
Much of the time, prayer can feel like a solitary act. We pray silently when a diagnosis hits or when we’re approaching a challenging meeting. We name our gratitude quickly before falling asleep, or we write in a journal. Other times, we pray before meals, together with children before bedtime or communally in worship.
After my time at the cathedral in Santiago, I could picture both the silent prayers and the spoken prayers rising up like incense, floating into the world, touching those for whom I pray and being held by God. Whatever I feel and whatever I believe, God is with me.
Lent itself may also feel like a solitary endeavor—but it’s not meant to be. The season shows us what it is to be in community, praying, singing and reflecting together; pointing one another to the cross and the path we all take.
Together we are taken to the wilderness with Jesus to wrestle with demons and doubt, to walk through the darkness with others. We share Christ’s blessings of love and grace, which also means we share in the suffering and pain of Christ and our neighbors.
I don’t have any plans to walk a pilgrimage again, but I do intend to see the way in front of me—raising my kids, writing, preaching, listening to friends, caring for the sick—as a means to pray and experience the presence of God; as a walk with Jesus.
This Lent, walk toward the cross, set your prayers free, offer them to God, trust that you are not alone. And if you smell the faint scent of incense, open your hands and hearts.