“And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.” Revelation 8:4.
I slowly stand up from my seat next to the bishop’s chair near the altar at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Gulf Shores, Alabama as the organist plays the prelude to the closing hymn, “Lift High the Cross.” The music is uplifting, but suddenly I am transported and lifted to another space. There is an unusual burning smell in the air. I look up and see almost two straight lines of black smoke rapidly rise at least a foot above the altar and just as quickly disappear into the air in front of the congregation. I am aware as the acolyte in the white alb passes by me as she reaches for the silver processional cross that she just extinguished the two candles on the glass altar.
This smell is different from what I usually know at the end of the service. For me it is a holy smell, and it is accompanied by an uplifting holy smoke, stronger than incense. It is raw, attention getting, signaling that something has happened. The black smoke should be seen certainly by those few in the front rows of the congregation, but the smell probably only lives around the altar. By verse two of the hymn as the crucifer starts to lead the procession of choir members with blue cassocks and white surplices out of the church, I realize what this is all about.
The altar guild of Holy Spirit uses real candles, not the oil candles that I am familiar with in many of the churches I visit or serve. This is the smell and smoke from extinguished candle wax.
This is the smell I know after a session of spiritual direction with someone as they depart. I light the candle at the beginning of a session of spiritual direction to symbolize our meeting as holy as we care for our souls. I extinguish the candle at the end of our time to symbolize the passing on of what we have shared together. I know our time together as spiritual friends is holy work just as our Eucharist together on Sunday is a holy time.
The smell and the smoke tell me that whatever has happened is now being lifted up, spreading into the air of our surroundings, our universe. The Word we had together has now moved away from the altar at our the congregation and from the altar of our meeting out into the world. We can no longer see the smoke, but it is there. I only realize the smell briefly, but it is an icon of what is happening. The holy Word has moved on with its healing blessing out into the world, making a difference in all our wounded spaces.
Bless the altar guild of Holy Spirit for teaching me a little more about the movement of the holy.