Apr 10, 2015

The Empty-Handed Evening Sacrifice

By Heather Judd

Let my prayer rise before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

These beautiful words of Psalm 141 form the refrain of the psalmody in the Evening Prayer service (Lutheran Service Book – pages 245-247). They are soothing, lovely, and ineffably deep in meaning.

The evening sacrifice signaled the close of the day. It reminded the Israelites of their relationship to the God Who forgave their sins daily, provided for their needs daily, and gave them life daily. As a pillar of smoke rose into the twilit sky, accompanied by the smell of roasting meat and sweet incense, it was a visual and olfactory experience for the whole camp of the Children of Israel.

The image of our own prayers ascending like the incense of ancient worship is not difficult for our imaginations to grasp. We think of our words rising up to God and finding favor with Him. We visualize clouds of heartfelt pleas wafting their way to the throne of the Father.

The image of hands lifted as the evening sacrifice is more troublesome. First, Lutherans tend to avoid lifting up their hands above waist level unless (a) they are pastors giving the benediction, or (b) they are making the sign of the cross. Even if we did lift our hands in worship, how is that like a sacrifice? Are we giving something to God? Isn’t this treading dangerously close to the dreaded swamp of works righteousness?

Christian worship is not and has never been about giving back to God. In the sacrifices of the old covenant and in the Sacraments of the new, the acts of the worshipers are a bodily reminder from God that He has given us all we have and that He is our one true source of blessing. Not only does He feed His worshipers by these acts, but He also pours out even more upon us, forgiving all our sins.  

This truth is a blessed relief because at the end of the day I frequently feel I have nothing left to give. My mind cannot even form the coherent thoughts of prayer, and certainly I have no strength for offering anything with my hands. And that is entirely the point.

Think of the small child, raising his hands to his father to be picked up. This is us, turning all our love and desire toward our Father, in Whom we implicitly trust. Think of the busy mother, stretching after a long day of labor. This is us, setting aside all the work of the day to find rest. Think of the young child, holding out her hands at the prompting of a favorite adult. This is us, ready to receive the unknown gifts our God has to give us.

Hands lifted up must be empty--their work must have ceased. They are ready to receive and to rest. This is why Psalm 141 is so fitting for the service of evening prayer. It bids up stop all our earthly busyness and turn only to God, to Him Who says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).  

As the daily duties of vocation press with ever-increasing urgency, I often find my body holding the tensions of my to-do list and wrapping itself around my worries. As I lie in bed, I will sometimes realize that I am literally clenching my fists, as though clinging onto all the cares of the day. What blessed peace, then, to uncurl my fingers and sing with David these words of trusting vulnerability:

Let my prayer rise before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.


Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming.  The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up,  and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call.  When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.

Title image: "Praying Hands" by Albrecht Dürer

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