Incense

Incense in the Bible

The Biblical use of incense is normative.

The “sweet savour” of incense was used in Old Testament liturgy as far back as the time of Moses as an offering to God in Exodus 30:34-37

“And the Lord said to Moses: Take unto thee spices, stacte, and onycha, galbanum of sweet savour, and the clearest frankincense, all shall be of equal weight. And thou shalt make incense compounded by the work of the perfumer, well tempered together, and pure, and most worthy of sanctification. And when thou hast beaten all into very small powder, thou shalt set of it before the tabernacle of the testimony, in the place where I will appear to thee. Most holy shall this incense be unto you. You shall not make such a composition for your own uses, because it is holy to the Lord.”

And while Malachi predicts the end of Temple sacrifices through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, he also associates Jesus’s sacrifice for the Gentiles with the widespread use of incense.

“For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 1:!)

Indeed at the birth of Christ, the Gospel writers include the gift of incense among the offerings to the God-man. The fulfillment of the messianic prophecies are confirmed with incense. Incense is therefore a symbol of New Testament glory and of our prayer-based access to the very throne room of God. Far from being a superfluous ritual, incense is a physical reminder of what the sacrifice connects us to; mainly heavenly access to the Father.

Even the very angels of Heaven use incense, the smoke of which comes with the prayers of the Saints.

“And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.” – Revelation 8:3-4

Incense in Liturgical worship

Incense is used during the Holy Communion service to bless the Altar when the priest first ascends to it, and, during the Offertory, to bless the bread and wine, the cross and Altar (again), and the congregation. It also used during processions, funerals, and to bless liturgical items like bells or the Gospel.

Anglican Priest Percy Dearmer makes the argument that ritual is not opposed to Jesus, but embraced in its Biblical purity.

“Now it is certain that the worship described both in the Old and New Testaments is what is called ‘ritualistic.’ The minute directions as to the ornaments and vestments of the ministers are familiar to every reader of the Pentateuch; and these directions go even into such detail as the proper ingredients of incense Nor is there any hint that this ritualism was to be dropped under the New Covenant, as is sometimes gratuitously assumed. Our Lord attended the ritualistic services of the Temple; nay, He was careful to be present at those great feasts when the ceremonial was most elaborate. Yet no word of censure ever escaped His lips. This was the more remarkable, because He was evidently far from ignoring the subject. No one ever appreciated the danger of formalism so keenly as He: He did condemn most strongly the vain private ceremonies of the Pharisees. Also, on two occasions He cleansed the Temple, driving out, not those who adorned it with ceremonial, but those who dishonoured it with commercialism. That is to say, His only interference with the ritualistic worship of the Temple was to secure it against profane interruption.”

(The Parson’s Handbook, Rev. Percy Dearmer, M.A., London: Grant Richards, 1899)

Incense is carried in a thurible and the individual swinging it is called the thurifer. The thurible consists of a bowl that is suspended on chains approximately 3 feet long. The chains are fastened at the other end to a disc containing a ring by which the thurible is held. The bowl of the thurible has a lid which slides up and down on the chains. Attached to the lid is a fourth chain which passes through the disc and terminates in another ring that is used to lift the lid. When in use, the bowl of the thurible is filled with lit charcoal.

During the service, the incense itself is carried in a small vessel known as a navicula or “boat,” which also includes a small spoon that is used to place incense onto the hot coals during the service.

Incense and the Prayerbook

This Book of Common Prayer was not created in a vacuum, but derives from several sources. First and foremost was the Sarum Rite, or the Latin liturgy developed in Salisbury in the thirteenth century, and widely used in England. English liturgical customs prior to the Reformation were even more elaborate. Sarum rite notes often included instructions for multiple thurifers swinging incense.

It is then not surprising to see not a single prohibition of the use of incense in the various rubrics and injunctions against Romanist rituals. Certainly the English reformers were familiar with the use of incense, yet the Biblical merit is too strong to justify a prohibition from Christian worship. Even if some reformers sought to discontinue its use.

For a peek into Prayerbook ritual according to its bulwarks, one need look no futher than Bl. Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626). Andrewes was behind the creation of the English masterpiece the King James Bible. He desired the Church of England to express its liturgy in ordered ceremonial and in his own chapel regularly used incense.

Where to Buy Incense

While incense is widely available online, I’d recommend buying from the St. Andrew’s Store. Proceeds go to support St. Andrew’s Academy, a ministry of St. Andrew’s Church located in the mountains of Northern California.

The most popular blend produced by St. Andrew’s, Almanor, The “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” blend is, founded upon an Ethiopian frankincense with four other fragrances via resins and essential oils. A great incense for Christmas and Easter, or everyday use, with a very smooth and balanced fragrance, not too sweet. Their blends are 100% natural resins and oils, no wood products or other fillers are used, making the blends very easy on the nose and throat.

Buy here.

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Steve Macias
Father Steve Macias is an Anglican priest in California's Silicon Valley. He is the Headmaster of Canterbury Christian School, Rector of Saint Paul’s Anglican Church, and Archdeacon of the West Coast for the Anglican Churches of America. He is married to Sarah and the father to Athanasius, Anselm, Assumpta, Basil and Zoe. His professional work consulting with political campaigns, leading nonprofit organizations, and in the California State Capitol has been recognized by The Los Angeles Times, National Review Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, The Chalcedon Foundation, and numerous online and print publications. You can reach him on twitter @stevemacias.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great article! I have been often asked why we cense people…there is a quite beautiful reason! When at the Liturgy people are censed, it is to acknowledge the indwelling spirit in each Christian.

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