A song I sang as a boy chorister began, “What is this lovely fragrance wafting like to the scents of flowers in spring?” I recall neither the rest of it nor the author’s intended meaning, but the words remind me of incense.
The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in his book, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, recognized that the intellectual insights of evangelical Anglicans are a valuable contribution to the life of the church, not the least of which is their respect for scripture. Vows taken by clergy when they receive the sacrament of holy orders include affirmations that scripture is the word of God and that scripture contains everything necessary for salvation. Just as Jesus saw himself in the context of the Jewish scriptures, Christians should see incense in scriptural terms.
When I see a recessional with clouds of incense, I think of Isaiah 6:1-6, where God chose a prophet in the midst of a temple full of incense and sent him into the world. A church filled with incense moves me to fulfill our common task as Christians, as Christ commanded (Matt. 28:19), to make more Christians.
But let’s begin at the beginning. In Genesis, God made the trees and plants on the Third Day (Gen. 1:9-13). Incense comes from gums, resins, and spices produced by trees and plants. Hence, in offering incense, we offer God’s own creating back to God, as in the hymn, “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own, have we given Thee.”
In Exodus (30:1-8) God gave specific instructions for establishing a place of worship which included an altar of incense where God expected “regular” (in some translations,”perpetual”) offerings of incense. Verses 34-36 give detailed directions about what kind of gums, resins, and spices should comprise the incense. Incense thus reminded worshipers of God’s presence and connected them with God as its fragrance ascended.
Some early Christians criticized incense as reminiscent of pagan worship. But pagans are God’s children, too. God made us for worship, and intended us to worship with all that is within us as expressed in Psalm 103:, ”Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.”
True, pagans burn incense; much of our worship – prayer, song, candles, bread, wine, vestments – pagans also do. Christmas itself derived from the pagan holiday of Saturnalia. Yet incense was burned in the Jewish temple worship as a sacrifice to God and to mask animal sacrifice odors. Christians used it to purify the air of early churches, so as to create a pleasing environment for humans to commune with God while creating a “ritual consciousness,” to rouse and direct our energies to spread the word.
Given the universality of incense in human worship of the divine (it has been used from the dawn of history in nearly every culture, from Northern Europe to Arabia, to Israel, to Turkey to Asia), one cannot help but conclude that burning incense is as natural as words for humans to express themselves in worship. For Christians, the difference is who we worship and why.
In Exodus (30:37), God commands that the recipe for divine incense be used only for worship and not for common perfume. In Numbers (16:1-30), God looks to the identity and intent of the offeror. Two-hundred fifty elders assembled to challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron. All 250 took their censers into a holy place and offered incense, thinking that doing so would invoke God’s favor. However, God, more amenable to the ministries of Moses and Aaron than of the rebels, caused the ground to open and the Lord’s fire to consume them. The following day, when the people of Israel continued their rebellion, God visited a plague upon them. Aaron, acting on Moses’ instructions, went into the place of worship, put incense into his censer and swung it before God to atone for the sins of the rebels, stopping the plague.
In the context of God’s displeasure with the lack of diligence among Jewish temple priests who had not been attending to their duties, God commands, “From the rising up of the sun until the going down of the same, Incense shall be offered unto my name.” (Mal. 1:10) Is not this context similar to the state of the nearly-dead Anglican Church of the late 18th century, later brought back to life by the revival of the catholic faith via the Oxford Movement, which promoted incense?
Incense first appears in the New Testament (Luke 1:8) when Zechariah, tending to his duties as a priest, learns of the impending birth of John the Baptist while offering incense. It is thus a harbinger of good news, appropriate to be used at mass in the gospel procession.
The kings gave frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus (Matt. 2:11). Susanne Fischer-Rizzi, in The Complete Book of Incense,  points out that frankincense, the main ingredient in Christian liturgical incense, improves the carrying power of the human voice in rooms where it is burned. University research documents the antiseptic and purifying qualities of frankincense known in Arabiaand Egyptfor millennia before the birth of Jesus. Frankincense also has a psychoactive component which expands one’s consciousness. Myrrh, like frankincense included in temple incense, was commonly associated with healing, relieving pain, calming confused and exhausted people, and preparing bodies for burial.
Christian writers, notably St. John the Divine, recognized the powers of incense and the importance of its role in the relationship between God and humanity. An unnamed bishop once said, “there are but two smells in the afterlife, incense and brimstone. You’d better get used to one or the other”. The odor of brimstone is promised to those who follow Satan (Rev. 14:9-11). Earlier in Revelation (8:3-5) an angel stands before God with a golden censer giving to him “much incense”; with which the prayers of the saints ascended to God. Although the unnamed bishop’s statement was probably in jest, it does ask a serious question: Should our worship emulate that of God in heaven, or separation from God?
Dom Gregory Dix, in The Shape of the Liturgy not only points out that the people of the New Testament did not oppose incense in worship, but he suggested that the disciples may have burned incense during the Last Supper. However, this use of incense, according to Dix, was a domestic, rather than ritualistic, use of incense, and the first Christians often burned incense in their homes to give themselves pleasant surroundings. Incense did not become a regular feature of Christian worship until the fifth century. Despite the Reformation, it continued in some English cathedrals until the mid-17th century.
The 1979 prayer book of the Episcopal Church mentions incense in The Order of Worship for the Evening and the Consecration of a Church. In his Commentary on the American Prayer Book,Father Marion Hatchett not only proclaims that our prayer book is the first to mention incense, but describes it as “honorific, fumigatory, and festive” and “thought to have purificatory powers, was used in times of sickness and to cleanse … it was a worthy and expensive gift, thought to be pleasing to God and efficacious for the atonement of sins.”
When incense is missing from worship, it is conspicuous by its absence. Worship must address the fundamental truth that God created us with five senses. The Song of Solomon demonstrates that love involves all of our senses. So too, the church, to express its love for God and to communicate God’s love for us, added ceremonial, bells, vestments, plainsong, and of course incense to what was once a simple rite originally performed in homes and catacombs. These accouterments function not to detract from worship, but to engage the entirety of ourselves, souls and bodies, to become a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving offered to God in the Eucharist.
And a church offering incense is an explicit acknowledgment that the Bible is the word of God and contains truly everything necessary to salvation – including the appropriate odors for worship!