Most mornings I try to begin my day with some prayer, journal writing, and reading. I light a candle and some incense and take in the bright spring light streaming through the windows. For Mother’s Day, my husband and daughter gave me some new incense, hand-rolled and thick, made of gray copal from Mexico. As part of my prayer and meditation time, I’ve been pondering this incense as the smoke rises. It curls and turns, loops and sways, sometimes in two lines, sometimes turning into a tangle of curls like a child’s messy morning hair. This incense is powerful, filling the room with a rich smokiness. Incense in the Bible is used in prayer, to symbolize our prayers rising to God.
But this week, I was pondering how this incense can symbolize Jesus and the ascension. Today is the Feast of the Ascension, when we celebrate Jesus Christ being ascended to heaven. This is 40 days after Easter and 10 days before Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes like wind and fire (incense!?) onto a large group of Jesus’ disciples.
The Ascension has always been a hard concept for me. Jesus is resurrected on Easter and then hangs out on earth for another 40 days before returning to be united with God. He promises the Holy Spirit on his disciples, explaining he will never leave them nor forsake them. Even though the body of the risen Christ leaves their physical presence, his spirit remains. How is this so?
I come back to the present—look again at the incense burning slowly and powerfully, quiet and constant. The incense rises, fills the room with its lingering scent.
In fact, when I left our upstairs office for breakfast, I forgot to put it out. (Don’t worry—it isn’t like a burning candle fire hazard …) When I returned from taking my daughter to school, the incense was so potent it reached my nose at the front door. The incense reminded me it was still burning, even when I wasn’t in the room noticing it. Jesus is like that too.
I come back to the incense, I sit here and write. I watch the smoke rise and dissipate into the air. The tip of the incense is gray-white with a core of red slow-burning. It will burn my finger if I touch it, but the ash that falls below cools instantly. The smoke disappears into the air in a few seconds, but I can see it billowing up and out.
The ascension of Jesus is like this. Luke 24: 51 says, “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” His physical body is gone. But he is as real and present as the incense that fills this room, its tiny molecules of rich scent traveling down the stairs and filling our house. No door can stop the scent of incense, the wind of the Spirit goes out to touch all the air. We might not see Christ any longer, but the sweet wind and incense of his presence fills the house—the whole world—with its cleansing, spicy beauty.
The ash that falls off the incense could be us, the changed lives that make Christ known to the world. We are part of the Body of Christ; we are set afire with Christ’s presence in our hearts and lives. Ash is both delicate and powerful, gritty and fine, yet hard to ignore. When Christ has come into our lives, we are changed.
May the incense of Christ fill our lives and the world today as we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the ends of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.