Memorial of Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr
(I Kings 8:1-7.9-13; Mark 6:53-56)
The word incense is the past participle form of the Latin verb incendere meaning to burn. Incense is often burned as an offering to God. The smoke that it gives off rises as a symbol of human desire to come into the divine presence. The sweetness of its fragrance is meant to please the Lord.
In today’s first reading incense rises in Solomon’s temple for the first time. It is an important occasion. Now people have a special place to make offering for their sins. Solomon even declares that God dwells in the cloud of smoke that results from their sacrifice. In the story of Israel, however, the people do not stop sinning. The prophets then prescribe a more effective offering than incense. The people are to be “humble and contrite in spirit” trembling at God’s word (Isaiah 66:2).
Such a person was today’s patron, Saint Agatha. Although little is known with certainty beyond her dying as a martyr, there is a late story that describes her sacrifice. Agatha was a Sicilian beauty who professed her virginity to the Lord. The Roman prefect became enamored of her and had her tortured for refusing to give in to him. Soon afterwards she died in prison.
Fortunately we will not be called to make the supreme sacrifice for God. But we can and should make small sacrifices of prayer, patience and charity regularly. These works, as the psalmist says, rise to God like incense.