The Lord said to his disciples, “Every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny him before my Father who is in heaven.
The Sunday after Pentecost in the Orthodox Church is dedicated to All Saints. The purpose of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to make saints of us all. The first and most important element in this process of sanctification is acknowledging Christ before others. In the early Church, and at subsequent times of persecution and still to this day to acknowledge Christ may require a costly sacrifice, even martyrdom.
In such a context,”talk is not cheap” and the Holy Apostles knew this when they wanted to share the life giving salvation that they had found and experienced in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Epistle for the feat Hebrews 11:33-12:2 we read about the price of that confession of faith- “they were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword.”
We must understand that, as Christians, we are engaged in a spiritual battle in the world. Christ Himself said that the world will hate us but that He had overcome the world. We too have to overcome our timidity and fears, our reluctance to speak out for Christ in the world. We are in the world but not of it.
At every service of worship in the Orthodox Church we offer incense to God as a sign of our worship of the One true God Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The action is a powerful symbol of our prayers rising to heaven as the smoke ascends. We read in the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi gives the instruction from God:
From the rising of the sun, even to its going down,
My name shall be great among the Gentiles;
In every place incense shall be offered to My name,
And a pure offering;
For My name shall be great among the nations,”
Says the Lord of hosts.
The priest blesses the incense which he puts on to the burning charcoal to cense the holy gifts at the Proskomedia with this prayer:
“ Blessed is our God, always now and ever, and unto the ages of ages . Incense we offer unto thee, O Christ our God, as a savour of spiritual sweetness which do Thou receive upon Thy most heavenly altar and send down upon us in return, the grace of thine all-Holy Sprit. Amen”
Incense has a long history in the Bible and in the tradition of the Church. God commanded Moses to use it in the Tabernacle and it was used in the Temple at Jerusalem where there was an altar of incense. Frankincense and sweet smelling myrrh was offered to Christ at His nativity. In our churches, the sacred censer has twelve bells symbolising the twelve apostles sounding forth their teaching with the proclamation of the gospel. The lower bowl represents the earth and the upper bowl heaven. The charcoal is lit and gives off fire and heat and fragrant incense is placed on the burning coal. Our offering in worship likewise should be sweet and full of zeal with the warmth of the Holy Spirit. We see at various points in the Holy Liturgy and at other services the priest censing the holy Icons of Christ, His All Holy Mother and the saints as well as the faithful who are made in the image of God. When we come home, we find that our clothes are permeated with the aroma of incense. One of our Parishioners remarked that her husband always knows when she has been to Church!
All this is very beautiful. The aroma and action engages with our senses to elevate our heart towards God, but we should not forget the context of what this meant for early Christians. They were required once a year to appear before a statue of Caesar and put a pinch of incense on burning charcoal and say “Caesar is Lord!”It was seen as an act of political loyalty. But of course many Emperors imagined that they were divine (gods) and the conscience of thousands of Christians would not allow them to do this simple act and say these words, because for them there was only one Lord, Jesus Christ. They were prepared to be killed rather than confess a false god.
Just a pinch of incense but to whom do we offer this?
Last century, St.Gabriel Urgebadze from Georgia was such a confessor. After compulsory service in the army, he became a monk in 1955. He made himself famous by setting fire to a banner of Lenin during a parade in Tbilisi in 1965. He spoke openly to the people: “Glory is not needed to this dead, but glory to Christ, who subdued death and blessed us with an eternal life.”He was arrested, tried, ruled to be psychotic and confined to a mental hospital for seven months. He was treated mercilessly by the authorities who demanded from him confession of an alleged conspiracy in the Church in return for him to escape the death sentence. Despite torture and severe interrogation he would not accede to their political machinations. He put Christ first! He acknowledged Christ.
St Polycarp of Smyrna when he was eighty six years of age was asked to renounce Christ he replied, “Eighty six years have I served Christ and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who served me?” He was burned at the stake. He put Christ first. He acknowledged Christ.
We are strengthened when we acknowledge Christ, when we make a public confession of our faith. The Holy Apostle Paul tells us that if we confess with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead then we will be saved. Romans 10:9-10. We should tell others how much Christ means to us. At Pentecost we were equipped with all the resources we need to bring others to Christ, we have no excuse. If we acknowledge Him before others then He will acknowledge us before the Father in Heaven.
Let us pray, that through the strengthening and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we may be found worthy to acknowledge and confess Christ.
Let my prayers be set forth before Thee as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice; hear Thou me, O Lord.
Joyous Father Pustinnyk