disclaimer: this node details the duties of the thurifer in the Episcopal Church only. Most other Protestant churches (and a good proportion of Episcopalian churches) are too low church to use incense, and I know far too little about Roman Catholic liturgy to node them.

The thurifer is the person during a church service who is in charge of swinging that metal bowl on a very large chain that is filled with incense. Anyone who enjoys mocking Christianity should have a fun with this aspect of the service. Filling the church with a lot of smoke is kind of weird, some might say vaguely Rastafarian (in fact, as many have reminded me, the smoke symbolizes the congregation's prayers being carried to heaven). But this is intended to be an edifying and factual node, so down to business.

The container for the incense is called the thurible. It is the duty of the thurifer to manage the thurible during the service, bring it to and take it from the priest or deacon, and swing it during the Eucharistic Prayer. Most thurifers use a long sweep coupled with a short jerk to swing the thurible; I have known some who swing it in a complete circle or even a figure eight. The boat-boy or girl (I am dead serious, that is what they are called) walks next to the thurifer, carrying the incense refills in a vessel called the boat. Thus, another of the thurifer's duties is to manage the boat-child, and make sure they don't light the priest's chasuble on fire again. The third of the thurifer's duties is to accompany the priest or deacon and instruct them how to use the incense when they need to; for example, after the deacon sings or reads the Gospel, in many churches he or she swings the thurible at each side of the congregation.

I wish that I could conclude this node with a list of some famous thurifers throughout the ages, or perhaps a brief history of how the position of the thurifer came to be, but all I can do is note that incense has been central to Christianity from the very beginning, when two of the Three Magi gave Jesus frankincense and myrrh. I will just end by encouraging you, the next time you happen to be in the presence of a thurifer, to note the skill and elegance with which they practice their art.



Having noticed the vim with which religion is discussed here on e2, I would just like to state for the record that I am of undecided religious orientation and the only reason I am so well-versed in the minutiae of the Episcopal Church is that my father happens to be a priest. Since my childhood of falling asleep during Midnight Mass, I have found the pomp and circumstance of Christianity far more interesting than its beliefs.

thanks to leodv for some gentle corrections.

Where are the matches?

Where are the matches.

You thought there were some with the candles. Maybe one of us remembered to put a box of matches in the hood of our alb. It's a good idea anyway, as the weight of the box weighs down the hood and makes it hang right.

Ah! Great. Thanks.

That means you can race to the side room and find the charcoal. Hopefully we've still got some. Ah! There it is, in its delightful roll like a pack of mints or Life Savers. It's at the back of the drawer, slightly crunchled, which means you have to VERY...CAREFULLY... extract them to avoid getting black sooty stains on your alb and the ire of the Deacon. You're going to have to wash your hands and you hope you remember to before you do anything else. Two or three into the white-ashy bottom of the thurible. Now to light them. No, not your thumb. Ow. The charcoal. Holding a small wooden match (here's where you wished the long ones weren't so costly or as likely to get "repurposed") at a significant angle while sticking your hand through a narrow hole into a vase-like brass object means praying that the telltale signs of lighting happen before your thumb gets too badly singed.

Ah! There it goes. The tell-tale dancing of sparks across the surface of the black disc, a charging line of delicate orange. Now to wait for the charcoal to start changing color to a light grey, a sure sign, and to watch to see that the ignition is complete. The growing heat of the charcoal releases the ghosts of many services past, and a warm glow of gum incense fills the small room. It's comforting. It's pleasant. Oh wait. The small room. The one you reminded yourself you'd open the window in, first. Cough.

You try to ignore a recent finding that suggests it might be carcinogenic.

You huddle up close to the head of the procession, waiting for one of the priests to come and dispense some incense into the thurible with the requisite prayer. You can see the disapproving looks of several choir members, who don't appreciate the presence of a thick, choking smoke in their vicinity when they're about to proceed in in full song. You hope you're doing this at the right time and the timing of it means you'll enter the much larger church right away, as opposed to standing there with what amounts to a smoke grenade in a smallish enclave. The initial gush of burning incense is notable. Some parishioners look back. Some realize oh goodness, they use incense here, and look around to see if they have time to change where they're seated.

And you lead the procession in.

You're swinging a heavy object back and forth, dispensing smoke, and feeling like that Gogo girl in Kill Bill. Back and forth, praying you don't hit a pew, or someone spilling halfway into the aisle. The rest of the procession certainly worries so, as it's wisely keeping itself back and distant from the flailing brass. You also pray that you remembered to pull the lid right back down on the top of the thurible (it is early in the morning after all!) and the chains are properly secured: that you're not about to fling burning material at people in their Sunday best.

But even though you get the odd complainer, and it gets a bit hairy when you try to simultaneously climb the altar steps, not trip over your alb, keep your eyes where they should be and not bang the thurible against anything - when the smoke literally clears and the church has that wonderful churchy ambiance, it's all worthwhile.

As you race to the side room behind the altar, because it's choking you in the narrow passageway you've turned into. You can't extinguish it, it's needed later in the service. All you can do is park it behind a door and wait for your next cue.

 

Such is life.

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