28 August 2015

Rites of the Virgin Queens

Empress Theodora by J-J Benjamin-Constant
In the Judeo-Gnostic descent of Sophia, and in the Greek myths of Persephone (Proserpina to the Romans), there is a common legend and initiation to be cherished and emulated by lovers of wisdom. These ancient stories and the traditions which sprouted from them provide a similar order to achieve liberation of the soul. Despite the differences of language, custom and religious history, it is well worth drawing an initial sketch of these two ancient Mediterranean mystery schools, and how they lead the attentive seeker to the same destination.

The “Bridal Chamber” in the Gospel of Philip, a second or third century Gnostic text found among the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, describes an initiation into the Mysteries akin to the purpose of the cult of Persephone at Eleusis and Syracuse.  This is true for the form of the Bridal Chamber as a sacramental event, such as the Greater Mysteries celebrated in the Telesterion at Eleusis, and also for the function of the rite, which is the liberation of the soul.  Regardless of their many points of departure, both the Gnostic and Hellenic stories share common elements and objectives, which I believe are worthy of our contemplation today.

The two myths begin their dramatic procession by the descent of the goddesses into the darkness. For Persephone, her abduction by Hades to the underworld is echoed not only in the fall of Sophia, but also in the Gnostic myth of Edem being abducted and raped by Elohim in Justin’s Baruch, and Yaldabaoth’s defilement of Eve in the Secret Book of John.[1] The theme of the daughters of wisdom being seized and oppressed by the lords of the earth emerges.

Although the Eleusinian Mysteries were strictly secret, we know a little about what they focused on by way of initiates like Plato, who described the function but not the actual rituals themselves.  He refers to this in Phaedo:

The true moral ideal, whether self-control or integrity or courage, is really a kind of purgation from all these emotions, and wisdom itself is a sort of purification. Perhaps these people who direct the religious initiations are not so far from the mark, and all the time there has been an allegorical meaning beneath their doctrine that he who enters the next world uninitiated and unenlightened shall lie in the mire, but he who arrives there purified and enlightened shall dwell among the gods. You know how the initiation practitioners say, 'Many bear the emblems, but the devotees are few'?

Wisdom being a kind of purification is an important point in both myths, so too is the descent of the Divine Feminine into the darkness of the material realm, where she is transformed through metanoia; a change of mind or repentance, into an even stronger deity.  For the Gnostics, Sophia becomes the Queen of Heaven, and for the cult of the Two Goddesses, Demeter and Persephone, there is a similar development in Persephone’s stature after her marriage to Hades. Among other advancements, Persephone morphs from her appearance as Kore, the maiden, into the queen of the underworld, goddess of water and the spring, “all-ruling virgin” and mother to the dying and rising Dionysus as Eubouleus and Zagreus.[2] These epithets are perhaps suggestive of the cult of the Virgin Mary. This is not to say that Christianity and the cult of Mary is nothing but an imitation of the polytheistic past, but to celebrate the continuity and veracity of this spiritual impulse which surmounts culture and epoch, and smolders in that sacred and eternal space which the human heart inhabits from time to time.   

The beginning of September is the time when the cycle of Persephone’s story begins, and it is precisely the same time that we prepare for the great feast which celebrates the Descent of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) into the material world, and the birth of Virgin Mary. As the Gospel of Philip reflects,

Adam came into being from two virgins, from the Spirit and from the virgin earth. Christ therefore, was born from a virgin to rectify the Fall which occurred in the beginning.

This primordial symbolism leads us to contemplate the microcosmic significance of being born twice. The idea of dying and rising again is contained in both the Eleusinian Mysteries and in the rite prescribed in Philip. In lieu of beginning the gospel with the life of the young Jesus, Philip shows that Jesus, who I believe symbolizes the initiate, must enter the Bridal Chamber. It says further that a glorious change took place on the day of his baptism by John in the river Jordan. “He who was once anointed, was anointed anew.” 

This anointing appears to signify the death of his old self and his union with the angelic self, which emanates from the Pleroma. Sex and death play pivotal roles in both myths. Philip treats this as the “Sophia of death.”

Echamoth is one thing and Echmoth, another. Echamoth is Wisdom simply, but Echmoth is the Wisdom of death, which is the one who knows death, which is called ‘the little Wisdom’.

This little death and spiritual wedding (hieros gamos)[3] gives birth to a new body which supplants Adam’s animal and exists in the eternal fullness. This, I contend, is not to be read as mythos or cosmology, but what we must do. This is the Opus Magnum of the alchemists and the reason why Jesus is called the Logos Incarnate and the Exemplar by the Gnostics.  He has replaced his will with the larger will of the Logos; the force which orders the universe and gives means to every expression.

The hieros gamos of Hades and Persephone at the beginning of her myth leads the maiden to greatness among the gods; so great that according to the Orphic Hymns, she attracts the attention of Zeus himself, who impregnates her with Dionysus, lord of resurrection and the vine.  Later we will see that in addition to being the virgin, sister and bride, Persephone participates in a divine economy of three emanations in her Orphic Triad. Likewise, Philip provides us with three women of special import, bearing the same name:  

“There were three who walked with the Lord at all times, Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, whom they called his consort. For Mary was his mother and his sister and his consort.”

In the Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom of Solomon, wisdom is personified as a trinity. Similarly, in the Gospel of Philip, the first in the Sophianic-Marian hierarchy is the Virgin Mother. Philip describes her this way:

Indeed, one must utter a mystery. The Father of everything united with the virgin who came down, and a fire shone for him on that day. He appeared in the great bridal chamber. Therefore his body came into being on that very day. It left the bridal chamber as one who came into being from the bridegroom and the bride.

Mary Magdalen was called the companion or consort of Jesus, whom he loved more than all his other followers.  In this gospel, she is mentioned in the context of Sophia, Holy Wisdom, which according to Wisdom

[R]eaches from one end of the world to the other; mightily and sweetly does she order all things. In that she is conversant with God, she has magnified her nobility; yea, the Lord of all things Himself loved her. 

In Philip, Jesus opens the door to the eternal moment and shows the light to his disciples. Mary Magdalen fulfills the job description of being “conversant with God.”  In other words, Mary is not merely a model disciple, but part of the sacred economy necessary for the Bridal Chamber to work. Philip shows this by assigning Mary the quality of seeing the light when others were blind to see it.[4] She has been in the Bridal Chamber. Back in Wisdom, we see her role more clearly:

By means of her I shall obtain immortality, for she is the mother of fair love, and of patience and perseverance, and of holy hope. Thou shalt put her on as a robe of honor, and shalt put her about thee as a crown of joy.

In wisdom we can appreciate our goal as Gnostics. We seek the knowledge and experience of the Divine here and now; this is a self-realization as much as an epiphany from some external force.  It is as much about opening ourselves up to the Mysteries as it is about receiving them.  However, none of our seeking or discipleship will amount to anything unless we willingly enter the Bridal Chamber.   

This is not a place, but a state of spiritual preparedness.  It is no doubt aided by ritual and environment, but the essence of the Bridal Chamber is a willingness to yield to the transforming power of the Divine.  We celebrate this very act in the Eucharist. The dove of the Holy Spirit drops down into this dark world and becomes the flesh and blood of the Logos.  Our intentions during this most sacred act must again be willing to yield to the Beloved; we must join physically and spiritually with that Higher Self, the angelic counterpart of our own souls who awaits us in the Bridal Chamber. 

As we saw before, in Philip there are three Marys, not just two.  Beyond the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen, there is the sister of the Virgin, Mary Jacobe, wife of Clopas. Many scholars believe her to be the mother of James the Less, thus her Latin cognomen “Jacobe” or “Iacobi”, although it is also possible that this Mary was actually a sister to Jesus.  Either way, the role of this Mary mentioned in Philip could be to fulfill the three representative Marys who counterbalance the three Valentinian Christ figures.  But our purpose here is not to study these spiritual realities in a purely analytical way; we must also be open to the reception of this knowledge through experience. One such experience was that of St. Francis’s spiritual sister, St. Clare of Assisi, who wrote:

See now. You are held tightly in His embrace. Now, you are His beloved, His mother, His sister. For He is your Lover, Your Son, Your Brother.[5]

In the Gnostic conception of God as taught by Valentinus, among others, there is the aeon Christ, the co-eternal Logos whose consort is the Pneuma Hagion—the Holy Spirit.  Second in line is the Christ the Savior (Christos Sother), who was matched with Sophia. Finally, in the flesh, the Gospel of Philip seems to indicate that Jesus and Mary Magdalen complete this trinity of syzygies. This trinity of couples reflects some fascinating equivalents in the Greek Ouranic (heaven) and Chthonic (underworld) gods mirroring each other, and the specifically Eleusinian Orphic triads of Rhea—Demeter—Persephone (as Kore); and Kronos—Zeus—Dionysus.[6][7] 

Although there is much more to discover in this immensely ancient drama of the Virgin Queens, this great Marian and Sophianic feast of ours which we celebrate on September 8th must forever persuade our limited faculties to emulate her procession from descent to her search, and finally her ascent to the light above.  To pay homage to this well worn path, let this time of year be a moment in which we can see ourselves as we truly are: the children of the Bridal Chamber, “who need take no other form, because we have contemplation.”[8]

My special thanks to my friend and parishioner, Clark Aitkins of Harvard Divinity School, for his part in inspiring this research into the parallels to be found between Eleusinian Mysteries and the Gospel of Philip. My hope is that he will carry this research into academia.

[1] Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, The Gnostic Bible, (Boston: Shambhala, 2003) 125 and 159
[2] Orphic Hymn 29. Hymn to Persephone
[3] Hieros gamos or Hierogamy (Greek ἱερὸς γάμος, ἱερογαμία "holy marriage")
[4] From the Gospel of Philip: “When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”
[5] Saint Clare of Assisi: Her Prayers, Poor Clares of Arundel.
[6] Rudolphus Maria Berg, Proclus' Hymns: Essays, Translations, Commentary. (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2001), 257.
[7] Melitta  Benu, ed., Queen of  the Sacred Way. (Middletown, DE: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2012) 211

21 August 2015

A Voyage to Equanimity

 If a man does not know to what port he is sailing, no wind is favorable.  

 —Seneca, Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, VIII, LXXI, 3

It has always seemed reasonable to me that we should try to control our emotions and our thinking.  It has never served me well to blurt out the first thing that comes across my mind, or to follow that downward spiral of negative thinking that ends in hatred, sloth, peevishness and self-destructive narcissism. I am, of course, addressing myself to those lucky ones who do not suffer with mental illness or depression.  No amount of philosophy, religion or Jedi mind tricks can undo the physical, chemical and emotional damage ravaged by depression and related mental illness.

It has become increasingly important for me to focus not only on daily prayer, but meditation and constant mindfulness.  I rise at least an hour before I have to, precisely because I need that dark, quiet time to pray, meditate and then drink my coffee in peace. In order to improve the way I deal with life's many problems, I have returned to reflecting on the very helpful meditations of the ancient Stoics.  Having used some of their techniques during a life crisis before, I recently decided the time had come to revisit that path.

During the worst of times, when one thing after another hits us, it is relatively easy to slip into self pity.  Why me?  But if we shine the light of reason on that common question, I think the answer is perfectly obvious.  It's not just you or me.  Everyone has problems. Everyone is going to lose loved ones, suffer disease, emotional trauma and death.  There is nothing special or unique about these things.  Our job as humans is to walk that very tight rope which is stretched between nature and our own will.  We must strike a balance between living a virtuous life in accordance with nature (which for humans includes being reasonable since we have reason) and our will, or what in this case was known as prohairesis to the Greeks.  This word is rich with connotation.  It means "will", but it connotes moral character, volition and even choice. 

Given that we have this will or moral choice to make in our own lives, this places a lot of weight on our thoughts and actions.  If fear is born from ignorance, as Seneca would have us believe, then perhaps it is really fear and negative thoughts that need to be controlled.  Unless you are some kind of sage, you cannot overcome your mortality by sheer will power, but you can rise above mortality by not allowing fear to rule your heart and mind.  We can maintain an even keel through the worst of storms.  The Stoics called this æquanimitas, equanimity.

Of course keeping our minds serene amid the tumult of this world is not an easy prospect, but it can and has been done by many who follow Stoic principles and exercises. I take it as my responsibility as a human being, and as a priest, to better myself and my reactions to those around me; so I embark once again on a voyage to equanimity. Check back here for updates on harpy and siren attacks!


15 August 2015

Divine Mothers

Statue of Mary in the crypt, Dormition Abbey, Mt. Sion, Jerusalem

One of the key aspects of a Johannite approach to religion is the principle that scripture and tradition are not things to be taken literally.  Ancient people wrote the stories of their spirituality in a way that defies our understanding of objective historical truth.

In our Liturgical Calendar, August 15th is called the Assumption of Holy Sophia, an allegorical return of redeemed wisdom to the fullness of the Divine, the PleromaAs a core Gnostic myth, the redemption of Sophia by the Logos is both beautiful and necessary to a broad apprehension of the economy of grace that propels the cosmos towards ultimate reunification.  On the microcosmic level, that reunion includes each one of us, as children of Sophia, as we make our way back to our spiritual home. 

Notwithstanding the importance and beauty of the myth of Sophia, it really has very little to do with the historical development of August 15th as the feast day of the death and assumption of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  As much as I appreciate the meaning behind the Sophianic reference to this great feast, the Gnostic façade recently placed over the Assumption of Mary barely seems appropriate when we consider the role the Blessed Mother played at the heart of the early Johannite community. We do not have to believe in a supernatural assumption of Mary, or even the miraculous resurrection of her son, to pay proper homage to the woman who dedicated her life to the love of God.

It is no less Gnostic–and certainly no less Johannite–to remember this day, August 15, for what it truly represents, which is the passing of Mary into the light beyond the shadows.  The amazing thing about this date is that it is universal throughout the Church, although it was not celebrated universally until after the 5th century. In many respects, the story of Mary’s Dormition, as the Greeks call it, was a simple memorial to an extraordinary woman.  Mary was a person whose role was so purely selfless and so pivotal that she embodied the countless Divine Mothers who had been revered since time immemorial.  

Some Gnostics assert that the celebration of the Assumption of the Holy Sophia predates the celebration of the Assumption of Mary. This is simply not true.  There is no evidence of a date on which the Assumption of the Holy Sophia would have been celebrated by the ancient Gnostic Christians. The date of August 15th and the replacement of Mary with Sophia was probably chosen consciously by the 19th century Gnostic Bishop Jules Doinel, although I admittedly do not have a citation for that conjecture. Regardless of who put it in the Gnostic liturgical calendar, I do not mean to refute the importance of the archetypal ascent of wisdom, but to register a certain uneasiness with the appropriation of the memorial of Mary's death.

While it is true that the Roman Catholic Church did not dogmatically define the Assumption until Pius XII’s Apostolic Constituion, Munificentissimus Deus in 1950, the Feast of the Assumption is indeed very ancient.  The liturgical history of the Assumption shows us much about the nature of human spirituality.  In the first and second centuries, few people would have known the exact nature of the death of the Blessed Mother.  They argued about the exact conditions of her passing.  Did the Holy Mother die? Was her body miraculously taken into the realm of the Spirit?  Was she martyred or did she die of cancer?  All these questions naturally arose among the nascent Christian communities which dotted the known world from Palestine to France, and Armenia to India.  By the year 431, the Blessed Mother would be remembered by the Council of Ephesus as the “God-bearer” or Theotokos.  Throughout the next few centuries, more Marian feasts would be included in local liturgies, including the Assumption or Dormition.  

Facts surrounding Mary’s death were clearly disputed, although Pius XII was wise enough to leave a broad interpretation of her body being miraculously taken.  The 5th century account of the Assumption which is available online should not be understood as a unique source, or even a particularly old one.  We know that writings such as these came from traditions, both written and oral, which are far older.  The Liber Requiei Mariae (The Book of Mary’s Repose), an Ethiopic text which dates to the 3rd or 4th century, was by tradition taken from an account made by St. John the Beloved or at least his community. At its heart then, the memorial of the Blessed Mother is a deeply Johannite affair when we remember that it was to John that Jesus entrusted his mother before he gave up the ghost.  Mary would have been cared for by John and his community until her dying day, and so it must have been both extremely sorrowful for the primitive Johannites when Mary passed into the next world. According to East and West, which rarely agree about anything, August 15th was the day of their loss, and her joy.

While I am respectful of those who will likely disagree, I feel that being faithful to the memory of that very special Jewish mother is a lot more important than pasting a Gnostic title over the name of Mary.  For me, the Assumption is not a day about abstractions or myths; it is the celebration of a day when an extraordinary woman was taken into the love and light that she helped bring into this dark and perilous world. It is a day when the Divine Mothers, Mary and Sophia, were finally united. 

05 August 2015

Demiurgic Sherbet

World-hating dualists.  This is what the ancient and medieval Gnostics are often called.   

Scholars and commentators see the Gnostics as a people who view the world as a terrible farce; the product of a naughty god who fancies himself greater than all, and yet blindly lives in the suburban fringes of the truly divine. There, high above the northern horizon of these ancient mystics, hovered the true God of Plato, the One whose primeval fullness is even older than its own shimmering darkness.

It seems to me that the dangerous but necessary dance between the beauty and delectability of this tarnished Eden, and the knowledge of its inevitable decay, bears a precious and eternal gem of wisdom.   Like the blood-red pomegranate fruit, this tiny treasure rests as the fulcrum between what we can sense and what we can truly know; between sanity and insanity, decadence and transcendence. 

A certain sense of resignation is not unexpected among those of us who recognize the flaws, the immense injustices, and malignant sufferings that are contrasted in our minds like the spattering of filth on the lily white linens of our divine expectations.  We have not fallen; we are seeing with the eyes of that platonic fullness which has somehow been left like the residue of a flood in the mysterious recesses of our skulls. 

It is tempting to be drawn into the darkness of nihilism, depression, and even self-destruction, when we closely examine the cruel terrain of human existence.  It is also easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of horrible things which face us. The other day, I thought about this kind of listlessness, which my Sicilian grandmother first expressed to me in terms of fate.  Another Sicilian, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, encapsulated that ancient moribund spirit in his book Il Gattopardo, which was adapted as the 1963 film The Leopard by Luchino Visconti. As I watched the movie, I sat motionless as Burt Lancaster, who plays the part of Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, said these words:

Sleep, my dear Chevalley, eternal sleep, that is what Sicilians want. And they will always resent anyone who tries to awaken them, even to bring them the most wonderful of gifts. And, between ourselves, I doubt very strongly whether this new Kingdom has very many gifts for us in its luggage. All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really a wish for death. Our sensuality, wish for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings, a hankering after extinction. Our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a desire for voluptuous immobility, that is... for death again.

Perhaps there is a little Sicilian in all of us, especially in those of us who follow the path to Gnosis. Maybe all the violence in the world plays on this desire for the tranquility of death.  As much as we dislike the epithet “dualists”, at least until the fullness is restored to our sight, there will always be a terrible gap between the beauty that we can envision from our most distant Parent, and this clay pit of ignorance and pain which we temporarily inhabit.

But here’s the thing:

The real beauty that can restore our vision of the world, and unveil the fullness of its design, is the love we share with one another. We are imbued with a spark of that original divinity, and our care for one another empowers us like nothing else. We are the children of that forgotten perfection, and through love, compassion, ritual, art and science, we hold and cultivate within us the gold that can mend these demiurgic sherds of earth. 


22 July 2015

The Red Egg of Resurrection

Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalen and the inner life she nurtured like a master gardener, full of love and steadfast dedication.

A necklace, tyet, or knot of red carnelian, symbol of the blood of Isis who brought her beloved Osiris back from death, was once used by the Egyptian priests to ensure the resurrection of the pharaoh. Using similar symbolism, St. Mary Magdalen is often depicted holding the red egg of resurrection. Harkening to the immensely ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, the egg appears in the rubrics for the deification of the body:
“Verily I say unto thee, I am the Plant which cometh forth from Nu, and my mother is Nut. Hail, my creator, I am he who hath no power to walk, the Great Knot who dwelleth in Yesterday. The might of my strength is within my hand, I am not known [by thee], but I am he who knoweth thee. I cannot be held in the hand, but I am he who can hold thee in his hand. Hail, O Egg! Hail, O Egg!”[1]
You have no doubt seen pictures of St. Mary Magdalen sitting or reclining in her room, brooding over the death of Jesus.  There are scores of paintings depicting a penitential westernized Mary, often scantily clothed with red hair and mellow dramatic eyes, gazing wistfully at a skull, a crucifix or heavenward. And yet these popular images do not do full justice to the strong, spiritual teacher who appears in the gospels and folk legends, and whose feast is celebrated on July 22nd.

The words of Jesus, taken from the controversial Gospel of the Beloved Companion, give eloquent testimony to the true nature of Miriam, the woman who holds the carnelian egg:
“I tell you this: when all have abandoned me, only she shall stand beside me like a tower. A tower built on a high hill and fortified cannot fall, nor can it be hidden.  From this day forth, she shall be known as Migdalah, for she shall be as a tower to my flock and the time will soon come when her tower shall stand alone by mine.”
Rather than being a weak and feeble penitent at her dressing table, the Mary of both the canonical and gnostic gospels is the person who asks the right questions when the other apostles were too busy with preconceived notions and conditioned thought. Mary is the woman who stands tall and full of life even after the death of Jesus, which is quite a bit more than can be said for St. Peter, who fled the scene and denied ever knowing Jesus. Mary was the first of Christ’s followers to visit his tomb and, according to some accounts; she was the first to see that he had risen.  Mary is the woman who, according to legend, travelled across the Mediterranean to live out her life as a healer and a teacher in the hills of Provence outside Marseille.  (Click here for more resources on the history and legend surrounding St. Mary.)

It is interesting to note that Mary’s greatest virtue given not once, but twice in the Gospel of the Beloved Companion, relates to her steadfast dedication.  Here is another example:
“My Master spoke thus to me: He said ‘Miryam, blessed are you who came into being before coming into being, and whose eyes are set upon the kingdom, who from the beginning has understood and followed my teachings. Only from the truth I tell you, there is a great tree within you that does not change, summer or winter, and its leaves do not fall. Whosoever listens to y words and ascends to its crown will not taste death, but know the truth of eternal life.’”  
If we sit quietly enough with the mysterious and powerful essence of Mary of Magdala, we can almost see her long hair and bronzed arms outstretched with love for the sick and poor to whom she gave indefatigable care.  We can imagine this mystical mother gathering herbs and making ointments for the dispossessed who followed her to the rocky hermitage at Sainte Baume.  If we are very quiet, our ears can hear Mary’s voice speaking words not only of hope and charity, but of transformation and love, that highest wonderwork of her Beloved.  Mary is the personification of steadfast dedication, and the most worthy spiritual focus of our liturgical celebration today.


[1] E.A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani, (circa. 1240 B.C.); London, 1895. (Photo above right: "The Penitent" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau)

16 July 2015

Incense and the Johannite Tradition

More than four thousand years ago, deep inside the sweet-scented darkness of the immense Egyptian temples, priests and attendants in minor orders were charged with keeping the lamps lit and the incense burning night and day. Indeed, casting incense onto hot charcoal has been an indispensable rite in the religions of the Egyptians, the Jews, the Greeks, Romans and finally, in Christian practice. Our English word “incense” comes directly from the Latin word incendere, which means “to burn.”  

The burning of incense carries with it practical, spiritual and aesthetic qualities that are shared throughout the world, from the churches of North America and Europe, to the temples and shrines of India, China and Japan.  In each region and religion, specific perfumes, herbs and resins have been burnt to please the Divine, cleanse the air of bad odors, and add a physical aid for us to hone our spiritual perceptions. Although the practice could be seen as an ancient version of aromatherapy, these mixtures were often extremely costly, and difficult to procure and make. Therefore, burning incense would have been a real sacrifice.

Moreover, according to recent scientific studies at Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the burning of frankincense, the most common ingredient in Western liturgical use, is not only psychoactive, but it is also an antidepressant.[1] Today, most of our church incense, which is usually based on frankincense, is made from the resin of the Boswellia tree, most commonly found in Oman, Yemen and Somalia–the ancient lands of the Queen of Sheba.
Evidence of the Egyptians’ use of incense dates from at least the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (2494 to 2345 BC), but it is generally thought that balls of scented resin, honey, spices and bouquets of various herbs have been burnt since prehistoric times.[2]  The Egyptians had a wide variety of resins, plants, fruits and medicinal herbs which were used.  Plutarch wrote of the Egyptian clerics, “Every day they make a triple offering of incense to the Sun, an offering of resin at sunrise, of myrrh at midday, and of the so-called kyphi at sunset.”[3]

For Jews and Christians, the mandate for the use of incense is taken from both scripture and tradition. In ancient Israel, Aaron, the brother of Moses, was commanded to burn incense from morning till night in the book of Exodus.[4] It is curious that some denominations of Christianity condemn the burning of incense at the altar, arguing that it was a tradition only under the Law of Moses, and that use of incense by early Christians never existed.  Contrary to these assertions, the Apocalypse of St. John, also known as Revelation, rather prominently features a vision of the Seventh Seal in which the prayers of the saints rise to the Divine with the smoke of incense.

 Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand. – Apocalypse of St. John 8:3-5

 If the followers of the risen Christ were not meant to use incense, then why does St. John’s vision have us understand that the prayers of the saints went up with its smoke? And the Apocalypse is not the only mention of incense made in the New Testament.  It is also present in the Gospel of Luke 1:11, when St. John the Baptist’s future father, the priest Zacharias, witnessed: 
An angel of the Lord, standing at the right of the altar where incense was burnt. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.  
Here we have a special appreciation for the central role incense played in the spiritual foretelling of the ministry of John the Baptist, and therefore the beginning of the Johannite tradition. 

In the very early Church there is little mention of any liturgical norms.  We do know that at least during the first two centuries of Christianity, most adherents thought of themselves as Jews and worshiped in the Temple and in the synagogues. If we were to use the litmus test of today’s Evangelicals and fundamentalists, the first Christians were not Christian at all since they observed Shabbat, not Sunday as their holy day, until about 110 AD[5]; they had no Bible, and they largely practiced Jewish customs, which would have included visits to the Temple where incense was most certainly used. 

No incense was used in Jewish practice outside of the Temple, thus the use of incense at the first agape feasts, and finally the more formal Eucharist, would have probably first been practiced by Greeks, Romans and other gentile Christians.  It therefore makes a great deal of sense that one of the first mentions of incense used in the liturgy was in The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who wrote of it as a common practice at the time he wrote Hierarchy in approximately 520 AD.[6][7]  Some say this is the first mention of liturgical incense.  

Since at least the fifth and sixth centuries, incense has played an important role in the celebration of the Mysteries in both the East and the West.  But there is also an important thread of continuity in the burning of incense that strikes directly to the heart of both the Johannite way and the teachings of Christ, the Incarnate Logos, who inspired St. John the Beloved to continue where he left off.  That tradition began long before Christ, which is why John the Baptist represents the initiation through the waters of the past and of learning, as well as the cleansing and welcoming Sacrament we have in today’s Holy Baptism.  

As Johannites, we do not destroy the righteous and powerful spiritual legacy of our ancestors; we celebrate it and fulfill its promises to us. Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Thus, with the help of the angels, we add our intentions to the smoke of the incense, and the prayers of all the saints, to be placed on the golden altar which is before the throne.

[1] Science Daily: "Burning Incense Is Psychoactive: New Class Of Antidepressants Might Be Right Under Our Noses". May 20, 2008, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology
[2]  Nielsen, Kjeld (1986). Incense in ancient Israel. p. 3.
[3] Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, § 52
[4] Exodus 39:38; The Mishnah (ed. Herbert Danby), Oxford University Press 1977, s.v. Kareithoth 1:1, p. 563
[7] William Scudamore, Notitia Eucharistica (Rivingtons, London: 1877), 154