After a meeting of local clergy leaders hosted by our parish (on the lawn, due to Covid restrictions), one of the pastors mentioned that he had never been inside our church. Knowing that most clergy enjoy snooping around places of worship, I offered him a brief tour of our historic church, which was built prior to the Civil War. That little church has seen a lot, from the devastation of a previous pandemic to the welcome arrival of indoor plumbing. I consider it an honor to serve there, and it doesn’t take much encouragement to get me to show guests the highlights.
We went in through the parish hall, past the sacristy. As we entered the passageway between the sacristy and the nave, I reached around to flip on the light. Looking back, I saw my colleague stop in his tracks. Then, closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and asked, “Is that incense?” He seemed a little surprised, caught off guard by the gentle yet unexpected scent that still hung in the air on Wednesday from Eucharist the previous Sunday. Entering the same passageway a few weeks later with one of our parish priests, this time on a Sunday, I saw that he too had noticed the scent, lingering there from the previous Sunday. I shrugged and replied, “I guess we’re developing a patina.”
In the Bible, incense is a visual and olfactory representation of prayers offered by the saints; wafting and curling upward, rising to the throne of God. Beautiful smoke makes for fantastic cinema, which is why so many old black-and-white movies feature characters smoking cigarettes. Of course, burning incense smells as beautiful as it looks, but its purpose as an offering has nothing to do with theatrics or sensory pleasure and everything to do with helping us visualize how our prayers are carried gently toward the Lord as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Revelation 8:3-4 (ESV) describes the heavenly scene: “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.” Generations of Christian art and liturgy embody this theme. The Book of Common Prayer begins the daily practice of Evening Prayer in the same vein, quoting the Psalms: “Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight like incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2; BCP 2019, p. 41)
However, like incense, prayer doesn’t only float away from us. In some way that we cannot identify, it clings to the one who prays, and sometimes to the place of prayer itself. Layer by layer, it builds up, until one day we realize that whether we think we are praying or not, prayer is always there. It simply hangs in the air we breathe. It changes us; it becomes our patina.
Advent is a season of waiting, and of repentance. This can be frustrating in “normal” times, but especially this year, having endured as we have an extended Lent. It feels demoralizing to go from penitential season to penitential season without having had the refreshment of summertime, activity, and rejoicing in between. There were no vacations or joyful relief from the waiting this year. In our hearts, we have turned inward and even gone into hiding. All the things we wanted to do—resolved to do—at the beginning of this year, still feel undone.
We have been worn away by these long months of waiting, but developing a patina is, by its nature, corrosive. The ancient vessel, buried for centuries and eaten away by soil and decay, develops its own patina—an attractive version of rust, a collection of soot, a wearing down of its sharper edges. Later we may admire the natural tones of oxidization—the green of the Statue of Liberty being one such patina—but that color comes as the result of breaking down, oxidization, corrosion, and time. This year we’ve all developed a patina.
Advent, however, is not only a time of waiting and repentance. It is a season of expectation and preparation, even if we do not feel it right now. We do not wait for someone who will never arrive, the cosmic Godot of Samuel Beckett’s play. Nor are we waiting for earthly things, though we may long for them as well. In reality, we are waiting for the one to whom we have offered our prayers all along. We await the one to whose throne our prayers and incense rise.
In the broader context of the Revelation passage above, the object of our prayers and waiting is the Lamb, who, on that same throne, opened the final seal on the scroll of God’s Will, after which “There was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” In the silence, all creation holds its breath. As there can be no music without the rests, it is here, in the silence and the waiting that the majesty of the moment comes upon us. Then, when all creation again takes up the music—when the trumpets blast and the incense is offered and the Lord’s return moves into high gear—the moment we are all waiting for is no longer hidden away, but revealed.
What we do in the waiting time feels insignificant, but it does matter. The patina we develop today, we will wear into eternity.