Incensing the altar of sacrifice

The Monastery of Bethlehem is situated on the outlying picturesque New York Catskill Mountains; a beautiful, serene and sacred setting. Upon entering these grounds, one cannot help but be moved instinctively to worship the good God, creator of the vast universe beyond perception, whose imminence to the earth is expressed most acutely in an unfathomable intimacy with the human heart. God is “wholly other,” yet closer to us than we are to ourselves.

The Monastic Sisters who worship God here day in and day out at every hour of every day convey a joy beyond one’s expectation. In their privileged vocation, God clearly loves them deeply and dearly through inscrutable secrets of his heart. They, in turn, know and love God through an array of spiritual dimensions seldom experienced by those whose life responsibilities and leisure necessarily situate them beyond the monastic setting.

The humble, hidden life of the Sisters is one of prayer: both personal prayer undertaken in the privacy of their hermitages and public prayer celebrated devoutly through beautiful solemn liturgical worship. The Sisters have 32 monasteries situated throughout the planet, all constructed with a comparable hallowed architecture. In each of them a simple, stark, stone altar is the center piece of their worship. It is the immediate focus of the chapel.

During the daily rhythms of liturgical prayer, the altar is incensed conscientiously at least thrice a day often more than that. It is the sacred space set apart for religious sacrifice and communion in the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the setting for Eucharistic prayer, the place where Heaven and Earth are joined in a way like no other. The rite of incense, so solemnly undertaken, expresses this reality concretely, unambiguously.

The perfumed smoke of incense has a varied history in meaning, but within the Judaic-Christian tradition, it is used to venerate and reverence that which is sacred. That is why during the Liturgy, not only is the altar incensed, but all the participants in the prayer as well because every believer is sacred. We all make up the Body of Christ.

Incense is also employed as a sacrifice of praise helping to make holy the gifts offered to God on the altar. We pray in Psalm 141, “Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands like an evening sacrifice.” We, too, offer our lives as a sacrifice of praise, giving to God the best of our love as was given to us through Jesus the best of God’s love. We, too, as with Jesus on the altar of sacrifice, offer God our love, pouring out our lives, loving to the very end. That is the best of our praise. In the oblation of our sacrifice, we tell God we give the best of our love in service of our neighbor; in that way we are giving the best of our love to Him.

The root of the Hebrew term for sacrifice, “olah,” means “to draw near.” As incense rises, symbolically drawing near to God in its physical drifting heavenward, the purpose and value of sacrificial worship is expressed beautifully. In sacrifice, we desire to draw ourselves nearer to God while praying that God will “bend his ear” to us.

The Sisters of the Monastery of Bethlehem devote their entire day and evening consciously drawing near to God, rousing their human primal instinct to bow before the altar of God offering an oblation of sacrificial gratitude to the Giver of All That Is; the Author of Love. For when all is said and done, we human beings are needy, dependent creatures; without God’s love we cannot survive. We reach our highest integrity when we express our humble gratitude for the gift of life to our Creator.

Sacrificial worship is uncommon today; perhaps it is only found in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Sacrificial offering was once constitutive of Jewish worship. The Hebrew temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was a magnificent structure. The ritual schedule of Temple prayer called for the burnt offering to God of a one-year-old spotless male lamb twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening. It was an act of gratitude to God for His covenant and as a sin offering begging pardon for the nation’s transgressions against the covenant. Whatever the sacrificial offering might be, of produce or livestock, it was always the best of the harvest or the healthiest and strongest of the herds that was returned to God in sacrifice, symbolically accompanied by an offering of incense.

As scripture scholar William Barclay notes: “Incense was burned on the altar of incense so that, as it were, the sacrifice might go up to God wrapped in an envelope of sweet smelling incense.” Incense played a vital, symbolic role in Jewish worship. It wrapped priest, altar and victim in a unity of praise to the all-powerful God in gratitude and reparation.

Catastrophically for the Hebrew people, their ancient primary mode of worship to God ceased once and for all when the Roman armies marched on Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, just decades after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, burning it to the ground. The destruction of the temple truly marked the end of a great epoch, for sacrificial worship ceased once and for all, replaced simply with prayer and study in the synagogues.

It was at this time that the mysterious New Testament Letter to the Hebrews appeared. Its theme boldly reformulates the identity of Jesus as priest, though He was not a priest in his actual life. The Letter to the Hebrews develops a new and rich theology of Jesus as high priest whose sacrifice fulfills and brings to completion the promise of the Old Testament: in His unique sacrifice of self, returning love for love, Jesus is at once priest, altar and victim.

In today’s world, the worship celebrated in the Monastery of Bethlehem, and in Catholic liturgies throughout the globe, may seem to unbelievers only a quaint relic of the past. There are few, if any, reference points in the contemporary world to rituals of sacrifice. Trust in scientific and technological development seems to have superseded trust in God. We have become the masters of our own fate; in so doing we have also, paradoxically, become the greatest threat to our existence.

Perhaps in today’s secular world we are tempted to worship only ourselves, our intelligence, our know-how. Worship, by its very nature, points to where it is we owe our allegiance for survival. We might even say that where our worship is, there will be our heart, our life.

The Sisters in the Monastery of Bethlehem and we believers around the world who worship in a cloud of fragrance at the altar of sacrifice where God’s love is ultimate, body broken and blood poured out in absolute love, once and for all discover joy beyond all telling. As we gather to offer the sacrifice of Jesus, we offer the sacrifice of our own love as well. It is our very life. Christians choose life; we choose love. It is where our heart is.

Fr. Hugh Cleary, C.S.C.Rev. Hugh Cleary, C.S.C., is chaplain to The Monastery of Bethlehem, a foundation of The Monastic Family of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin and of St. Bruno. Their life is lived in the contemplative vocation of St. Bruno, patriarch of the solitary monks in the West. There are more than 700 sisters in 33 different monasteries in 13 countries. It also includes 50 brothers living in separate monasteries. Fr. Cleary was ordained to the priesthood in 1973. He has served as superior general of the Congregation of Holy Cross; provincial of the former Eastern Province of Priests and Brothers; and novice director at the Holy CrossNovitiate in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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