Holy Smoke! Why do we Burn Incense?
“From the farthest east to the farthest west, my name is honoured among the nations and everywhere a sacrifice of incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering too, since my name is honoured among the nations.” (Malachi 1:11).
What is Incense?
Incense is made from the gums of aromatic trees and plants from the Arabian Peninsula and Ethiopia. Jesus and his disciples would have been very familiar with the smell and sight of incense as they visited the Temple in Jerusalem, joined with their friends in community festivals or were welcomed into someone’s home as a guests. Its use by both the Jewish people and by early Christians has many rich and symbolic meanings as we use it today in our worship.
The ancient world could be a pretty smelly place. Most people lived with extended families in small houses. There was no plumbing and everyone lived very close to their animals and their waste. Incense smoke was found to freshen the air and could purify a place from unclean odours. Since incense was expensive, it was saved for special occasions as when an important guest was coming, a family celebration or for gatherings on holy days. Burning incense in the presence of someone important became a sign of honour and respect. Incense was burned in your house or in front of your guest to welcome their presence into your home. Frankincense was given to the infant Jesus by the magi to welcome him as the messiah. In ancient Israel, incense was burned on the altar in the Temple of Jerusalem as a precious offering and as a way to purify the Temple in anticipation of God’s Divine Presence visiting his holy house on earth.
In the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, incense was burned in front of kings and emperors who were believed to have a divine status. Christians transformed this symbol and burned incense to give glory and honour to Christ alone who is our true “King of kings and Lord of lords”. This symbolic gesture of honour is extended to censing representations of Christ himself such as the Altar, the Blessed Sacrament, the Pascal (Easter) Candle or icons of Jesus. Importantly, we the people, are also censed to honour and respect the image of God in each of us and as a reminder that Christ is present in all our brothers and sisters.
At St. Peter’s we use incense at various times in our worship. Incense is one of the ways we can use our senses to worship God. Like all symbols, they can often speak to us in ways that words often fail. Incense signifies many aspects of our worship. It represents the presence of God, it is a symbol of prayer and offering and it is a symbol of honouring and worshiping Christ.
Walking In the Presence of God
On special occasions we have a procession. A procession is like a church parade in or outside the church. Processions mark an important Church festival such as Easter or Epiphany. A procession is symbolic of a sacred journey or a pilgrimage. Leading a procession is a person called the thurifer who swings an incense burner called a thurible (both Greek words for incense). The incense at the head of the procession is symbolic of the pillar of smoke in the story of Exodus. God guided the ancient Hebrews on their journey of freedom to the land of promise by the pillar of smoke (Exodus 13:21, 22). This reminds us that we place our hope in God who will always be with us as he leads us into his promised Kingdom.
As the procession winds its way in a circle around the church, the church begins to fill up with incense. In the Bible, God’s Divine Presence is shrouded in clouds of smoke, mist or incense (e.g. Exodus 19:9, 16-19, & 40:34-35, Daniel 7:13-14, Isaiah 6:1-5, 2 Samuel 22:7-13, Matthew 17:1-8). Clouds of incense smoke are elusive – you know it’s there, but you can’t reach out and contain it. God’s presence, like incense smoke, cannot be controlled or contained. If there’s a lot of incense smoke, it can literally cloud our sight. It blocks our view. This symbolizes the unseen God, our God who is shrouded in mystery, who is transcendent yet immanent, unconceivable yet intimately with us, a God in whom we live and move and have our being yet who is still beyond our complete understanding. The incense smoke which fills the church and surrounds us reminds us of the surrounding presence of the loving God who has come to dwell with his people.
A Symbol of Prayer
Incense is a very ancient symbol of prayer and offering. Archeological discoveries have suggested that humans may have been using incense for religious purposes as far back as twenty-five thousand years ago. The ancient Hebrew people continuously offered incense to God in the Temple as a symbol of their prayers. In the Psalms, the hymns of ancient Israel, the poet sings, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2). The incense smoke that silently rises to heaven is a symbol of our prayers carried heavenward to God.
The Book of Revelations enriches this imagery as an angel “who had a golden censor, who came and stood at the altar. A large quantity of incense was given to him to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that stood in front of the throne; and so from the angel’s hand the smoke of the incense went up in the presence of God and with it the prayers of the saints.” (Revelations 8:3,4). Using the imagery of the worship of God in Heaven itself, the Church uses incense to worship God here on earth where our prayers rise and are joined with the prayers of the whole company of heaven assembled around God’s throne.
A Symbol of Sacrifice – We are Christ’s Incense
Incense is grown in the remotest places with limited harvests every season. It was a highly-prized commodity in the ancient world and was worth its weight in gold. It was therefore one of the most precious things that could be sacrificed to God. Although Christians ceased offerings at the Jerusalem Temple, the imagery of incense as a sign of sacrifice was not lost in the minds or practices of the early Church.
St. Paul refers to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as an offering of incense. Paul writes; “…try then, to imitate God, as children of his that he loves, as followers of Christ by loving as he loved you, giving himself up in our place as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2). Paul is saying that to be like Jesus our love needs to be made real by the giving of ourselves in deep sacrificial love. Like Christ, “the fragrant offering” of precious incense, we have to search and reach deep within ourselves to find the best to give to others and to God.
During the Holy Eucharist at the Offertory, we make this offering of ourselves and we bring gifts that represent all aspects of our lives. We offer bread, symbolizing our work and wine, representing our joys. We give money as a way to offer our time, talents, and labours. We offer prayers for the world and all in need. The offering rite finishes with all these gifts being given with incense, which symbolically lifts us and our gifts up to God. During the Offertory, we take time and attention to ensure that everyone in the congregation is censed as well. The censing of the whole people of God reminds us that all our lives are offered to God. The Book of Common Prayer expresses this beautifully in the prayer, “…and here we offer and present unto thee O Lord, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.”
This offering of our whole selves to Christ can be transformative. It allows space for Christ to live and grow within us individually and transforms our church communities into places where Jesus is at the heart of all that we do. From our hearts and from our communities the love of Christ can flow outward. St. Paul writes about this when he says, “Thanks be to God who, who in Christ always leads us in a triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance from knowing him. For we are the incense of Christ to God among those who are being saved…” (2 Corinthians 2:14-15). Here St. Paul alludes to incense used in a Roman Triumph, a Roman general’s or emperor’s victory parade. Incense preceded the emperor in the triumph to prepare his way and to hail the emperor’s victory. St. Paul takes up the metaphor of incense as he says that Christians are to be like the incense smoke that goes before Jesus our King who is the true victor over evil and death. We are to go before him to prepare his way and to build his Kingdom. It is through us that the knowledge and love of Jesus will flow out to others like floating clouds of fragrant incense. We are censed to remind us that we are Christ’s incense to the world.
We use incense not because it adds a dramatic flair to our rituals, or because it is Anglo Catholic or “High Church”. Incense has been handed down to us from our Jewish spiritual heritage. We worship using incense as it is part of Christian Tradition. It is a living link with the worship of the Early Church and with Christians for two-thousand years. We use incense as it vividly portrays in a powerful symbolic language, central themes of the Christian life – prayer and worship, sacrifice and offering, spiritual transformation, sharing the Gospel, loving Christ in all people, and welcoming the presence of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit into our lives.
Article by Dean Rose.
Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;
From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.