Incense and Divine Wrath

Last week at Higher Things incense was used during the last two Evening Prayer services. It was new for many of the kids there. For us, it smelled like Church usually does. The Higher Things staff had a nice description in their service booklet about why we use it. They emphasized the bodily nature of our faith and worship, along with the association of incense with Jesus, both at His birth and death, along with the anointing He received before His passion. They wrote, “When you smell incense, look for Jesus.” A pithy saying.

censing-in-church1Not long after I ran across the following article written by an Orthodox priest. It’s notable for two reasons: first, Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon speaks quite openly about the wrath of God, which many Orthodox priests and believers shy away from these days. He writes,

Having determined that repentant prayer alone turns away the divine wrath, we should also consider two ritual gestures in which such prayer may be expressed: the offering of incense and the devout raising of the hands. Since Holy Scripture regards both these elevations as symbols of the soul’s ascent to God. It is no wonder we sometime find them joined in a unified ritual.

Perhaps Psalm 141 (Greek 140) best illustrates this perception. This psalm, still chanted at every Vespers service in the Orthodox Church, has been the evening prayer of God’s People since the time it accompanied the Evening Sacrifice in the Temple.

I cite the psalm’s relevant verse in the economy of the Hebrew text:

“Let my prayer be constant, incense before Your face; the raising of my hands, the evening sacrifice.”

The only finite verb here (tikkon, “to be steady,” or “constant,” or “established”) is unexpected, perhaps. At first glance, few things seem less constant, less “steady” than an incense cloud; it can be kept constant only by an ongoing renewal. Otherwise it dissipates.

The prayer must be continuous, then, in order to remain ever in God’s sight. What the psalmist apparently has in mind is the ongoing and permanent ascent of his prayer before the face of God. The incense fragrance, symbolic of prayer, rises up to Him along with the elevation of prayerful hands. Both the incense and the raised hands give expression to his devotion….

Numbers 16 tells a pertinent story: During one of Israel’s desert rebellions, at a time when the Lord in His wrath sent a plague on the people, Moses instructed Aaron,

“Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put on incense, and carry it quickly to the congregation and atone for them (Hebrew: kapher ‘alihem; Greek: exsilasthai peri avton); for wrath has gone forth from the Lord” (Numbers 16:46; Hebrew/Greek 17:11).

Lutherans reading this may wonder at a few of Fr. Patrick’s phrases and assertions, but consider incense and divine wrath and what we read above: incense and Jesus are connected. It’s not so much prayer done by us, nor burned incense that turns away the wrath of God, but Jesus does, with whom we also associate the burning of incense and the prayers of the Faithful One.

Jesus, divine wrath, incense and peace with God. It’s a good combination.

Worship and the Senses

Here’s the last in the sermon series Historic, Sacramental Worship. As with all sermons, the homily as proclaimed was different than the one written here. In this sermon, the ending proclaimed was much stronger, tying up the incarnation and resurrection with our own lives and promises in Christ.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

You sit on the examining room table, the paper covering crinkling and sounding 50db louder than it is. The foot rest is always too low for your feet, and lying back on the table is uncomfortable, so you sit with your legs hanging and feel like you are in second grade again.

Finally the doctor enters and begins a monologue and you tell him your ears hurt and your throat is sore and before you know it he’s sticking sterlized plastic into those orifices, and it makes it hurt worse and you gag, but you do it because you know it will make you feel better.

What would you do if he stuck his fingers in your ears? What would you do if he spit on his fingers and stuck those in your mouth?

So we hear our Gospel reading and this inner dialogue begins: “Wow. That’s kind of gross. But it’s Jesus. Yes…but it’s still gross. He died for your sins, you know. Yes, but spitting? You drink his blood. I know. He’s the Lord. But couldn’t he use, I don’t know, plastic gloves or something?”

It’s kind of hands-on for Jesus, isn’t it? Spitting and ear wax and sighing to heaven. Hands-on. Kind of like nails in the hands and feet and slow asphyxiation on the cross. Kind of like nursing and having diapers changed. Kind of like us.

We don’t like to think about these things though. We’re antiseptic, private people. We avoid personal space and cover our odors and smells. We don’t do bathroom talk. And we even like our religion to be antiseptic and “spiritual.” How many churches have blank walls and furnishing and simple crosses and look like schools on the outside? Not us, but far too many. How many of you are offended by Jesus’ body hanging there on that cross? How many of us would rather say a prayer than kneel, or think about Jesus far away in heaven rather than help a homeless man?

But Jesus won’t let us keep our religion away from our bodies and from our world. He became a man for human kind, for men and women. He was born in blood and tears and died in blood and tears. And just as Jesus became a man with flesh and blood and hair and reason and senses, He died for our flesh and blood and reason and for our senses too.

Let’s look at how those senses receive God and worship Him:

First, our ears, where the Word of God enters and converts us and convicts us and comforts us. With our ears we hear God speak through His Word. With our ears we hear the Word set to music, we hear the bells which draw us to the words of institution and the bread made body and the wine made blood.

And our tongues, which praise God, which respond in faith, which confess, which sing and which receives the Word of God too. The funny thing about our text: Jesus touches our tongues every Sunday too. Not with his spit, but with His blood. We taste and see the Lord is Good here at communion, in eating and drinking.

And our eyes see the elevation of His Body and Blood. They see the vestments, which cover me and show the office I have. Which cover the personality and convey the Office of the Holy Ministry. Our eyes see the cross and images of His death and resurrection for us. They show us the cloud of witnesses, the saint and martyrs depicted in glass literally surrounding us as Hebrews 12 describes.

And our bodies feel the one another in handshakes and hugs. They stand in honor of the Gospel and kneel in repentance and faith. We use our hands to make the sign of the cross over ourselves, to remind us of the cross for us and the cross we bear, to bless ourselves with the presence and forgivness of Christ on the cross.

And smelling, when we use incense. Using incense in worship connects our sense of smell to worship. Now, I know it’s a little more touchy than the rest of the senses, because we are not as used to it. But it is Biblical too. Incense was commanded by God in the Old Testament to burn from sunrise to sunset in His temple. Jesus worshiped smelling incense when He went to the Temple and taught the Word of God with it burning all around Him. Incense is a sacrifice, literally burning something of value for God. Incense is a smell and sight to remind us of our prayers ascending to heaven, as it says in Psalm 141: “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” Incense is mentioned in Revelation when St. John sees a vision of heaven: 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, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.

Incense is our prayers, Scripture says.

Now, to be pastoral about using this sense of smell in worship, here is what I will do. I will mostly use incense in the 8:00 worship service as we do now. On occasion, we will use it in the late service. But here’s what we will do: whenever incense is used, it will be publicized in the bulletin & e-blast and on Facebook, and there will be one service where it is not used, so if it really bothers you, you can still attend worship and not be bothered by it. I am also exploring some alternative charcoal, lighting techniques and incense blends that are less prone to aggravate sinuses. This is really important to me because I’ve got seriously terrible nasal allergies too.

While it irritates even me sometimes, I think it is important to use incense. And it’s not just a “catholic thing.” Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans in America (a few), but many in Scandinavia and Germany use incense all the time, as did Christians going back to the earliest days of our faith and Israel even before that. It’s biblical and godly and historic and traditional and adds to our bodily worship of God.


Incense Sermon in the Can

So I preached the last in the sermon series on worship, this last one being “Worshiping with the Senses.” It went pretty well. The late Divine Service in particular was very responsive today.

I was a little nervous, considering about a third of the sermon was covering using the sense of smell with incense in worship. Now, it really helped that there is a thurible hanging in the sanctuary next to the altar. That, and my predecessor was swinging it for some time before he left. A no-brainer, right? Yet it is a touchy subject and some have strong feelings about it. And since Beecroft’s departure, it has not been swung too much at all.

I heard some positive feedback, and know there is some negative too, but I think the plan to announce and publicize which service will have incense may really help those who have a bad reaction to it.

I’ll be posting this sermon in a few days.

Incense in Christian Worship

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.