Like me, when taken by surprise you’ve probably used the phrase “holy smoke” to express yourself. Ever wonder where that colloquialism comes from?
The Oxford English Dictionary reports the earliest printed use of “holy smoke” is found in Of The Epiphany, a 1627 poem by Sir J. Beaumont who writes, “Who lift to God for us the holy smoke of fervent prayers.” In that work, Beaumont uses the phrase to describe the burning of incense. It’s not until 1892, however, that the phrase finds service as an exclamation or mild expletive.
Recently, someone utilized the phrase when inquiring about Sunday morning worship services that utilize what appears to be “holy smoke.” So in an effort to clear up any fogginess [pun intended], I shared these few things about it.
To alleviate concern – the machine used is called a Hazer, which actually does not produce smoke. Instead, the haze created is a water vapor with an added protein that allows it to hang and linger for a while in the air. There are no chemicals involved. The vapor can increase humidity levels and if used in excess, may affect some people. And so, the goal is to use the machine in a safe, subtle yet creatively effective way.
Why use a hazer? Good question. The full answer may surprise some people. Obviously, the haze helps create a more dramatic and artistic environment for the worship experience and is commonly used by churches around the country. But, for me, there is more to it. The haze serves a symbolic purpose as well.
Since the days of the early church, the “holy smoke” of incense has played a symbolic role in Christian worship with the practice continuing today in a number of Christian traditions [as I experienced recently while in the Middle East]. In the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John has a vision of heaven and a kind of heavenly liturgy where the 24 elders worship Jesus, the lamb that was slain. The elders hold harps and golden bowls filled with incense, “which are the prayers of the saints” i.e., the prayers of God’s people. In Revelation 8 an angel holding a gold censer is given a great quantity of incense to offer and the smoke of the incense goes up before God with the prayers.
But the smoke of incense has an even longer history of use among God’s people. All the way back to the days of the tabernacle and temple, incense was used as a symbol of the worship and prayers of God’s people. In fact, the use of smoking incense was God’s idea.
In the book of Exodus, God commands Moses to make an altar of acacia wood for the burning of incense in the tabernacle. The “altar of incense” was to be placed near the altar of sacrifice. From that day forward, the incense was burned and filled the space with sweet smoke. It was the priests’ responsibility to check and stoke the altar twice every day [morning and evening].
Within the tabernacle and temple, the sweet smell of incense and its rising smoke served as a natural symbol – an image of something pleasing to God. The climbing smoke represented a person’s or people’s prayers rising up before God. It’s with this imagery in mind, David writes, “Lord, let my prayer come like incense before you.” [Psalm 141:2] In the New Testament, it was while tending the altar of incense that the priest Zechariah encountered an angel of the Lord who predicted the birth of his son John.
All this to say, while there may be some who don’t necessarily care for the hazing effect in worship, it’s important to note such usage shouldn’t be labeled as mere worldly theatrics given the use of incense and its smoke was originally God’s idea and command. Although the use of incense is no longer required in worship – its spiritual symbolism remains. I heard someone say, “I’m not sure there should ever be smoke in the house of God.” According to Scripture, God seems to differ in opinion.
So, yes, the use of haze during worship does create a dramatic and theatrical effect in any auditorium space – it also serves as a reintroduction of ancient biblical symbolism – of the worship and prayers of God’s people rising to heaven. In my opinion, it adds to and helps make worship a more multi-sensory experience. And although it certainly is not the “holy smoke” of incense, we might refer to it as the “holy haze” of prayer and worship.