What follows is a brief essay especially written for the people of Grace Lutheran, reflecting the current practices here and the use of incense in the past. I wrote it to organize my thoughts and presentations to the people here, many of whom are used to some use of it, but need to be reminded of the hows and whys. I would appreciate comments and feedback, though.
Incense in the Bible
Incense used in Judeo-Christian worship is usually a resin from the Boswellia tree, called frankincense, or a resin from the the myrrh plant. Incense was used historically for many purposes. Sometimes the resin was blended with essential oils to alter or augment the natural scent and then blended with olive oil to make anointing oil and perfumes, as scent for soap and cleaning, as an air freshener to cover unpleasant smells and for religious purposes. However, incense was also quite expensive, and its religious use was the dominant.
God called incense a pleasing aroma to him (Lev. 6:15) and commanded that it be burned in the Temple worship instituted with Moses (Exodus 30). The instruction given to Aaron, the first priest was, ”
On it Aaron shall burn fragrant incense. Morning after morning, when he prepares the lamps, and again in the evening twilight, when he lights the lamps, he shall burn incense. Throughout your generations this shall be the established incense offering before the Lord. On this altar you shall not offer up any profane incense.” (Exodus 30:7-9)
An altar was located in the holy place, directly outside the Holy of Holies and incense was burned from dawn to dusk. Incense was the ultimate sacrifice, in that it was taking something of intrinsic value and burning it away. A comparable act would be to take gold or cash and burn them in the offering plate!
Scripture associates incense with prayer. Psalm 141 states, “Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” What is notable about this is the subtle direction away from animal sacrifices, toward the kind of living sacrifice Christians offer. Our praise and incense take the place of the blood of bulls and animals, pointing to the pure sacrifice of Christ on the cross once for all.
There is no disputing that incense was used in the Old Testament worship. But what about the New Testament? Is it a work of the Law that is done away with? Should it have disappeared from the earth like the sacrifice of animals in the Temple?
In the Revelation of St. John, the Apostle sees a vision of Heaven, with the saints assembled before the throne of God. Significantly, as the prayers of the faithful are said on earth, an Angel bears a thurifer and our prayers are combined with the incense: “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.” (Rev. 8:3-4 ESV) St. John also shows the heavenly sights to indicate a truth we often miss: the presence of God in heaven is repeated or symbolized or enacted within our worship and sanctuaries on earth. When we gather around Word and Sacrament, Heaven comes to earth and our worship and praise is combined with the worship of all the saints and angels in heaven.
We are not sure exactly when early Christians began using worship in the Christian liturgy. While it is possible, and perhaps even likely it was used from the beginning, actual evidence dates to the late third century. This was the first time it is mentioned explicitly in writings we have that survived the centuries.
What Benefits Does Incense Give?
Christian worship is bodily worship. God created this world and called it good. Our bodies and sense are all creatures and gifts of God. In the incarnation of Jesus, He took up our human flesh and sanctified it. Christian worship is not just in the mind, but uses the body.
Even as Jesus saved us with His body, using His body nailed to the cross and His blood spilled for our sins, we use our bodies and senses to worship Him. We use hearing and our ears to hear His word of forgiveness and His Gospel. We use our mouths and tongues and speech to praise Him in song and responding to His Word. Our bodies stand at attention and respect when the Words of Christ are read. We kneel and bow to the cross and in prayer, worshiping with our bodies even as we worship with our spirits and minds and tongues. Our sanctuary is filled with images of Christ and His work in terms of His body on the cross, images of his miracles and saints, so that our eyes may be filled with Him and worship him by looking.
And when incense is burned, even our noses and sense of smell is involved in worshiping him! When the incense burns we smell the aroma and it reminds us of our prayers rising to heaven. We smell it and remember the incense burning in the presence of God as described in Revelation.
But I Don’t Like It!
Perhaps you don’t care for the smell. Or perhaps it makes you feel “too catholic.” Maybe it reminds you of bad events or times. It’s natural, after all. Our sense of smell and emotions and memories are intimately connected. A unique or strong smell can immediately bring up memories.
It’s hard to argue with emotions. But we also must remember that God is in the healing business, and while scents have strong emotional connections, almost anything and everything in this world can have bad or hurtful connotations and memories and associations. The goal of our God and the faith is to bring true and complete healing for all these things. Jesus Christ came to take all our human pains and ills, all our hurts and sins and cleanse them. He provided not only healing physical healing to some, but promises complete healing, of body and spirit beginning and now and being made complete in the resurrection.
What’s more, our worship is not about “likes” and “dislikes.” We do not worship with the liturgy because we “like” it. We do not have certain readings from Scripture because they are our favorite, nor do we skip readings we don’t like. Certain hymns may have great memories and evoke strong feelings for us, but even hymns and music are not written and included only to move us emotionally, but to direct our spirits and minds and attention to God, to praise Him with the gift of music, which is a natural and intrinsic gift we have as His creatures!
When we use incense in worship, we do not use it because we like it, but because it is part of the historic worship which we have inherited from the thousands of generations of Christians that have gone before us. Lutherans in Scandinavia and Germany used incense for hundreds of years (and some still do). Even more, Christians used incense 1000 years before the doctrines Luther opposed were present in the Church. Saying it is “too catholic” because the Roman Catholic church uses it often is like saying the Nicene Creed is too catholic because they say it every Sunday too. Or vestments!
But I Still Don’t Like it. I’m Most Certainly Allergic
Some pastors are too! There is some debate on how incense allergies work and what if what you feel is an irritant or an allergy, but it can be annoying, to say the least. We can do several things to mitigate and ease any bad effects.
Using natural charcoal without any additives will help tremendously, providing very little smoke and no chemical fumes. Furthermore, a hypoallergenic form of incense which minimizes additives and “flavors,” especially using the pure frankincense and/or myrhh will ease discomfort. Sitting near the back of the congregation may be required. Lastly, we will publicize in the bulletin, in the e-blast, and on facebook which Divine Services will feature incense. As a last resort, you may avoid those services and attend another. When there are two services on a given day, one will always be without incense.
Using incense is a historic, traditional practice. Even more, it is biblical! When we use incense at Grace Lutheran Church we are not trying to pretend to be something we are not. We are expressing the teaching and desires of the Lutheran Confessors and Luther himself to retain all things in the worship which are not opposed to the Gospel.
Incense is used to help all of our worshipers worship God with the whole body and senses: with sight and sound, touch and smell and taste as we receive the Eucharist. While not everyone may “enjoy” it, we pray that all will appreciate its biblical, traditional, sacramental and beautiful roots and intent.