On the Use of Incense
Written by Fr. Homer F. Rogers, from a brochure at St. John’s Church, Newport, RI. Adapted by the Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont, PA, transcribed by Mr Robert Stephenson, and adapted once more by Fr. Jared Cramer, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Grand Haven, MI.
Once upon, a time, in a far away land, before the days of Air-wick and indoor plumbing, people’s houses would get musty, and the odors of cooked cabbage and garlic would cling to the walls and curtains, and on damp days a crowded house might smell like the locker room of a gymnasium. Folks discovered, probably at first by accident, that if they would burn certain fragrant resins and gums, the smoke would sweeten the air and make life indoors much more pleasant.
However, since these aromatic resins and gums were rare and costly, they were saved for those occasions when company was coming. Thus it came to be that burning incense became a sign of somebody important coming to the house. You walk in, and smell incense and say, “Who is coming?”
Royalty and the aristocracy had incense burned before them on all public occasions. If you wished to honor a friend, you burned incense when he visited you.
Incense was burned in temples and all places of public and private worship in honor of the God who was to visit the temple. It purified the place in anticipation of his visit. The Jews did this and the Christians took over the custom. It is referred to in two of the opening sentences of Daily Prayer in our Book of Common Prayer, a signal of the tradition of its use during Christian worship, including in our own Anglican tradition.
- “From the rising of the sun to its setting my Name shall be great among the nations, and in every place incense shall be offered to my Name, and a pure offering: for my Name shall be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” Malachi 1:11 (Daily Morning Prayer, Rite Two, BCP 76)
- “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” Psalm 141:2 (Daily Evening Prayer, Rite Two, BCP 115)
Our Book of Common Prayer also indicates that its use is appropriate during the consecration of an altar (BCP 576), as a symbol of the holiness of this space where God becomes present and as a prelude to its use at the altar on particularly festive occasions during the church year.
And, of course, incense was among the three gifts brought to the Christ child by the magi, making its use during the principal feast of the Epiphany, the holiday that commemorates that event, particularly appropriate…
It is instructive to notice the places in the Church service at which incense is offered. On the entrance into the sanctuary, at the beginning of Holy Eucharist, the priest “censes” the altar to prepare it for the coming of God on the altar. Then he himself is “censed” by the deacon or thurifer because the priest himself is to become an instrument through which God acts in the service. The Gospel is censed because through it God still speaks to us.
The bread and wine are “censed” at the offertory, because God is going to visit them and make them His habitation. Then the congregation is “censed” for they are going to receive, their communion–God is going to visit them. Through participation in the sacrament, they also are to become instruments through which God acts in the service. They further are due honor in their own right as the Mystical Body of Christ through which (with the priest) God acts to become present once more.
At the moment of Consecration the bread and wine, Christ’s Body and Blood now truly Present, are again “censed” by the thurifer, because God becomes present there.
God is really acting through God’s priests. God is really present on our altars under the forms of bread and wine. God is really speaking to us through the reading of the Gospel, and finally God is really and actually present in the Christian who receives the Sacraments or hears God’s Word.
Incense is not used merely because it is pretty, or because it smells sweet, or because some people may like (or not like!) something that is “high church.” Rather, incense is used because, as a living link with Christians and Jewish antiquity, it assures us that the early Christians believe as we believe, that when we gather together in His Name, God is in our midst, that we do not merely remember a dead Jew but have Communion with a living Christ, that we do not merely long for a heaven that is “up yonder”, or “in the sweet by and by”, but adore an Eternal Lord who is “right here and now.”
It adds to our service an atmosphere of mystery–and well it might. For it signifies an invasion of the Eternal into time, of the Infinite All Holy into the midst of His people.
So when incense is offered, at it is at St. John’s at one service of Holy Eucharist surrounding each of the seven Principal Feast of the church, it should properly awe and impress us, with the terrifying fact of the imminent entrance of Him who flung the stars into space and who numbers the hairs of our heads, yet whose tender love is concerned with the sparrow’s fall, who willed to be laid in a manger and nailed to a cross that you and I might know His love for all eternity.
Because we want all people to be able to have this ancient experience of worship with incense, we are very careful at St. John’s. We use the highest quality charcoal we can procure and we burn only pure hypoallergenic frankincense. At the same time, for whatever reason, there are always some people who have a physical intolerance to incense. Thus, we also always have alternative options to observe those seven Principal Feasts, often on the same day, before the observance with incense or later in the week, on the Sunday of the feast’s Octave.
Indeed, those who do not care for or cannot be around incense are giving a profound gift to their brothers and sisters by making space in our parish for those who love incense. They help ensure that our parish truly is one that welcomes all people—not by forcing all people into the same experience but by exploring the many and manifold ways in which God’s people have worshipped the Blessed Trinity over the course of hundreds of years.
Those who love the incense at St. John’s are always deeply grateful for this gift from their brothers and sisters who may not like it, this gift by making space for its careful use just a few times a year here.
Understanding the ancient meaning of incense, as purification before the entrance of an important visitor, incense as the Church uses it is eloquent testimony and a vivid dramatization of the Church’s most cherished beliefs and vital experiences: God’s coming to humanity, really and actually, in humanity’s worship of God.
At the intercession of the Blessed Michael the Archangel who stands at the right hand of the altar of incense, may the Lord graciously accept this fragrant offering to his praise and glory. Amen.