Incense in Church

Diocese of the Midwest A scene from the Bamburg Apocalypse (circa 1020) depicting the angel with a censer from John 5:8.

What is Incense?

Incense is made from various aromatic resins and gums taken from trees and other plants. When burned it gives off scented smoke. In church it is normally burned in a censer or thurible. Because it is difficult to burn on its own, and to create the perfumed smoke, it is burned on charcoal. 

Most of Christianity uses, or has used, incense in worship. All the Eastern Orthodox Churches burn incense at most of their services, or liturgies. In the 'west' the Roman Catholic Church burns incense at many of its services, although its use is not as common as it once was.

The Church of England used incense throughout its history, until the mid 1600s, when it fell into disuse generally and subsequently became illegal. From that time, though, it continued to be used in worship in isolated instances, such as in York Minster, and since the mid 19th century its use has spread and increased. It forms a normal part of ACC liturgy and worship.

Incense and Liturgy

Liturgy is the formal public worship of the Church – its work. The Liturgy of the Church is made up of the liturgy of each individual Christian, and should be the best that we can possibly offer to God. Christian worship flows out of our love of God and our desire to express that love. As such we should worship Him with “all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength”. Good liturgy is designed to stimulate just such a response in us, by exciting the senses and feeding our imagination. The use of incense enables even fuller participation in the liturgy by stimulating the sense of smell. It also provides colour, movement and sound as the thurible is swung and its chain ‘chinks’ and ‘tinkles’.

Symbols in liturgy help to point our minds in the direction of invisible realities, and speak to us in a language often richer than words alone. As a symbol, incense is exceptionally rich in associations. Of its many possible associations, two are particularly worthy of mention here.

In St. Matthew 2:11 we read of the Magi bringing Frankincense (a particular type of incense) as a gift to the Christ child. The words of that well-loved Christmas carol “We three kings”: “Incense owns a Deity nigh” mean that incense is a sign of our belief in the Real Presence of Christ, the Son of God. What was good enough for the Magi is surely good enough for us!

In the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, the burning of incense appears to be an important part of the worship of heaven. In chapter 5 verse 8 we read of “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the Saints” This whole book is full of symbolism. Many commentators believe that Saint John, the writer of the book, was strongly influenced by the worship, or liturgy, of his own church. When we burn incense we remind ourselves that our prayers, like the incense, ascend to the throne of God and mingle with the prayers of the Saints in heaven.

The Offering of Incense

At the heart of worship in the Temple at Jerusalem was sacrifice. The sacrificial offering was usually a living thing such as a lamb or bird, but the fruits of the earth were also offered, including incense. In the Temple there was even an altar specially set aside for the burning of incense. With the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70 the sacrificial worship of the Old Testament came to an end.

The necessity for much of it had already been brought to an end several years before, by the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Our human need to offer thanksgiving and sacrifice to God remains, however. In our daily lives, Christians have the opportunity to give the best of themselves back to God in the service of each other. In our worship we have the opportunity to offer tokens that represent ourselves. Incense is a token of the best that we have to offer.

In 2nd Corinthians 2:15-16 we read “For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish;  To the one [we are] the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. ”  In the Eucharistic Sacrifice we join our offering with that of Christ Himself on the cross, as at the hands of the priest He offers Himself to the Father on our behalf. The burning of incense in the Mass reminds us that Christ's sacrifice is real, and just as effective for us who are alive today as it was when He died on the cross.

When we burn Incense

The most natural and appropriate time to burn incense is when the Lord comes among us in Person in the Mass. In the same way, at the service of Benediction you will find incense burned then. It is also burned at particular points during Divine Service, notably during the Te Deum and Benedictus at solemn celebrations of Mattins, and during the Magnificat at Solemn Evensong. It is occasionally used at other times also, such as at funerals, and when objects, people and places are blessed.