More light, more light
This Saturday evening, as the darkness gathers, I will ignite a small chunk of charcoal, place in it a brass pot attached to a chain, and spoon grains of Somalian frankincense on top.
The fragrant smoke rising from that thurible will be one of the indications that the Great Vigil of Easter has begun. The function of incense, Marion Hatchett wrote, is “honorific, fumigatory, and festive,” and in due course the paschal candle, the Gospel book, the baptismal font, the altar, the altar party, and the congregation will all be censed.*
The twice-a-year people who show up Sunday morning will get the full choir and the brass ensemble, but those who brave the night will get the mystery: the single candle burning in the darkness, the smell of incense, the retelling of the stories of salvation history (storytelling in the dark, like our remote ancestors), the Gospel of the Resurrection, the breaking out of light, the sound of bells, the first Eucharist of Easter.
I impose these ecclesiastical paragraphs on you, readers, including those of you who are not believers, so that I can talk a little about ceremony.
Ceremony, after all, is why a substantial number of Americans will be awake at six o’clock in the morning a week from tomorrow to watch the royal wedding. We took some trouble to extricate ourselves from the Crown, you may remember, and there is not much about the Windsors to inspire affection.** But Britain still knows how to do ceremonial, and Americans gape at the show.
In America, where grown men dress like pubescent boys and Casual Friday is universally observed, people chatter in churches as if they were in hotel lobbies. American weddings, when not conducted in the small hours at chapels in Las Vegas, are usually do-it-yourself improvisations in which the amateurishness of the ceremony is matched only by the vulgarity of the display of money. We elect to high office people unable to string together two coherent English sentences in sequence—we want our leaders to be just folks, just like us.
I think that we sense our national impoverishment—why else all the breathless William-and-Kate coverage?—and long for a dignity that we have forgotten how to achieve.
So, at the hazard of looking comical, I will be at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill this Saturday, vested, taking part in a ritual that has persisted since the second century of the common era.
It is worth attempting because, as William Carlos Williams wrote in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:
is human and we enjoy
the rumor of it
as in our world we enjoy
the reading of Chaucer,
a priest’s raiment
(or that of a savage chieftain).
It is all
a celebration of the light.
*I am aware, and need not be reminded, thank you, that many people do not like incense. Some find it physically irritating, and some find it theologically irritating because of its Romish associations. Though the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland is not quite as obsessively Low Church as it was when my wife and I arrived here twenty-five years ago, its clergy are still largely drawn from Virginia Theological Seminary, where incense and ceremonial are looked on as favorably as baptism by total immersion and predispensational millennarianism.
**There hasn’t been an English monarch since Richard III. (Some, I suppose, would say Harold II.) The Tudors were Welsh, the Stuarts were Scottish, and the current house changed its name to Windsor during the Great War to obscure its dreary German lineage.