I commented on the Baptism of Jesus before and here is the place you can find that work by clicking here: You have Never Been this Way Before
This year I concentrate on the gift of the magi — since Epiphany can be transferred to this Sunday as well as on Baptism.
Come, join the company of those who merrily welcome the Lord from heaven. Think of shepherds receiving wisdom, of priests prophesying, of women who are glad of heart, as Mary was when told by the angel to rejoice and as Elizabeth was when John leapt in her womb. — Basil the Great, Homily 2 on Christ's Origin
Incense, Frankincense or other, somehow has a large place in the world of religion, the faith of Israel not being an exception. Without much explanation, Moses is ordered to tell the Israelites to construct an Altar of Incense where morning and evening offerings of incense are commanded. (Ex 30:1) There is no explanation of why, or what it means, or if it is a symbolism. Build it. Do it.
Somewhere in Psalm 141 incense and prayer finally get linked: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” Revelation makes the same parallel. (Rev 5:8, 8:3) Yet, this linking seems to not be all that significant in the rest of the scripture.
No, burning Incense is simply what you did when you worshipped. The Wise Ones from the east (Matt 2:11) brought it because, somehow, it was the common gift one brought to worship in any religion, so common that often the burning of incense in the wrong places is reported in the Old Testament as an act of apostasy against the God Of Israel. (ex: Jer. 44, Dan 2:46, 3:23 apoc.)
Burning incense was a part of claiming allegiance to the god whose altar or in whose name it was burned. It fulfilled “righteousness.” No questions needed to be asked about the act. One just sort of did it, asthma and allergy be damned.
Look at it as a matter and act of faith. Much in Faith, prayer included, is a matter of just doing it. It offends the enlightened and rational mind that has to ask: “But why,” at every turn of the path. Some things just are a matter of righteousness being fulfilled and God is the giver of right and judge of what is righteousness.
What is one to say then about the interaction between John the Baptist and Jesus? Surely part of “righteousness” is a matter of obedience rendered in spite of doubt or un- knowing. Maybe it is a true sign of righteousness to commit to the Right utterly even to the point of dying. (Matt 5:10) At that, maybe it is a true sign of righteousness to make our commitment to the point of death even if it is not clear that we are, pardon the pun, right. Surely the cry of Jesus from the cross falls under this rubric. (Matt 27:46) Being human means not to know for sure but to have to “go with it” anyhow.
Theologians and pastors are expected to have answers on the benefits of incense, prayer, and Baptism and can probably make, in order of those three, make increasingly interesting and compelling — not to mention voluminous — arguments and thesis concerning them. To come to think of it, I really have only read maybe two concerning incense: One was for it the other was about asthma and community. I probably need to read more Eastern Orthodox theology.
Yet, when the dust settles it comes down to you and God: When Jesus says: “Do this,” what should be our next response? Faith is not always explainable though it is often rational. Faith obeys God and is its own explanation when what is done is not rational.
The God of Israel gives Moses no reason for building the altar of incense. Aaron builds it because God requests it. Israel burns its incense there because God said to. Israel burns incense no where else — well, that becomes a problem later — because the altar of incense to the God that brought them out of Egypt is the only place were they were told to do so. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego know the danger of following the word of God in these matters. As do the martyrs of Revelation 7.
If Faith is to always pay off and be rational, then what will you say to Job when you meet him? Will you tell him that his wife was right. “Why maintain your integrity [when there is no guarantee of benefit]? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9) Are you looking for benefit for burning your incense or benefit for your baptism? Job would tell you: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
For all the good theology of Baptism, at some very fundamental level it is a matter of Faith. The God of heaven and earth requests you presence in the water. I will be your God and you will be my child. No more, no less. Will that be enough?