This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Liturgical Use of Incense - A Study


Let my prayer ascend to you as incense,
and the lifting of my hands as an evening sacrifice
(from the Byzantine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts)


Incense and its use among Christians is an interesting topic, and although pretty standard for those of us who are sacramental/liturgical Christians, it is often misunderstood by our Protestant Evangelical and charismatic brethren because it is a foreign concept to many of them.  Some of the less-charitable among them even deride this aspect of liturgical worship as "smells and bells," but tragically they do so in ignorance.   I have felt led for some time to do a study on the Biblical and ecclesiastical support for the use of incense, and this is the result of that endeavor.  As you read it, if you are a Protestant Evangelical or Charismatic, I am hoping and believing that I can shed some light upon any misconceptions you might have concerning Christian uses of incense, and if you are a liturgical Christian I am hoping this will give you a better understanding and appreciation concerning why we do what we do in our Sunday liturgies.  That being said, I now want to begin.

First, there is a Biblical precedent for incense that goes back to Mosaic times, and it is more than a precedent - it was mandated of God Himself.   In Exodus 30:1-8, we see that God instituted it as part of the worship of the Tabernacle - verses 7-8 prescribes offering it morning and evening as part of the prayers of the priests for the nation of Israel.  Later, in Malachi 1:11, a prophecy is recorded saying that incense shall be offered in the future among the Gentiles in the Lord's name, which is an obvious reference to the Apostolic Church.  The Magi, it must be remembered, brought frankincense and myrrh, two forms of incense (there are meanings behind these too we will get into later, as a profound spiritual truth was behind the offerings of the Magi to the child Jesus).  These are some historical precedences, but incense was part of the worship of ancient Israel, and when the Church came into being on Pentecost, the Apostles incorporated many things from Temple worship - mainly because they were from God himself - into the worship of the Church, and today we still hold to those. 

However, the most profound Biblical references to incense, as they relate to the worship of the Church, are to be found in Isaiah 6:4 and Revelation 5:8.  Both of these verses describe separate experiences, hundreds of years apart, in which two of God's servants, the prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Saint John the Revelator, had an identical vision of the heavenly throne room.   Incense was a big part of both visions, and in Isaiah's case it was something so profound that he felt both awe and unworthiness at the same time, to which an angel touched his mouth with a coal from the censer and God anointed Isaiah to speak his Word - and, that Word later contained a lot of prophecy about the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ.  In Saint John's case, it must also be remembered that Revelation, as well as being a prophetic book, is also upheld by the Church as a liturgical text.  That being said, both the liturgies of the ancient Jewish Temple and of the Apostolic Church were icons of the heavenly worship in the throne room of heaven, a belief held today still by the Church.  That being said, as I became a Catholic myself, I began to realize that much of what I have been taught about these verses in the churches I grew up in was missing something, and here is what that was - God works through the tangible, and always has - to convey his truth and exemplify his grace, God uses physical symbols such as water, oil, bread and wine (in the case of the Eucharist), fire, and yes, incense.  We are commanded in Scripture to worship the Lord with our entire being, and that includes body, soul and spirit; therefore, it involves the use of all the senses our Lord has given us.  What I find curious in some charismatic circles is that there is a great emphasis on things such as "dancing before the Lord," which they take literally and some use as a manipulation to determine how "spiritual" their members are, yet when it comes to verses like Isaiah 6:4, all of a sudden it is merely "symbolic" because it mentions incense!  Why is that??  Now, I have no problem if someone wants to express their joy of the Lord in dance, and indeed in the history of the Church this has Scriptural support.  However, for those who sanction that, why not incense then, since the Bible clearly teaches that as well??  Thus, the point of this study!

Another Scriptural precedent for incense is what it symbolizes, and almost unilaterally it has to do with prayer and intercession as vital components of worship to the Lord.  If you will notice the quote I used at the beginning of this study, it has its roots in a Bible verse found in Psalm 141:2.  It is used today in a Byzantine Catholic liturgy known as the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, which is celebrated during the Lenten, or Great Fast, season.  Our prayers, as the verse says, ascend to God like incense, and they are offered with the submission of our hands being lifted toward heaven, something that is not "pentecostal" but is a normative prayer posture in the Christian East.  The Church takes this one step further by actually utilizing incense in the offering of liturgical worship.  Therefore, it is bringing a Scriptural truth to life in a tangible form, and we then participate in the worship of the Church with our senses as well as our spirit and mind.  We are not mere abstractions, and a quasi-gnostic mentality has taken over in many Evangelical and charismatic circles in which they reject these tangible, physical acts of worship.  Tragically, they do not know what they are truly robbing themselves of, because God created our senses with reason, and we should use them to glorify Him just like we do everything else.   With that being said, I now want to talk at length about the symbolism behind liturgical incense, and what I am about to share is actually some powerful teaching.

First, let me explain what the censer is.  The liturgical censer is made from either brass or gold (both of which have spiritual meaning as symbols - gold symbolizing the kingship of Christ, and brass symbolizes holiness and righteousness), and the "bowl" of the censer is called a thurible.  I read an article recently by Coptic Pope Shenouda III, in the August 2010 Abba Antony magazine published by Saint Antony Coptic Orthodox Monastery in California, and in the article, titled "Symbols and Names of Saint Mary In the Bible," His Holiness Shenouda devotes a section to the Coptic tradition of the symbolism of Mary, in her office of the Theotokos (God-Bearer) as "the golden censer."  He is in essence referring to the thurible, or in the Coptic tongue, Ti-shory.  That being said, one of the meanings of the thurible of the censer is of Mary, the Bearer of Jesus, the Son of God and God the Son.  Proceeding, Pope Shenouda then talks about the contents of the censer as being symbolic of Christ - the coal symbolizes His humanity, and the fire His divinity (the latter with Scriptural support in Hebrews 12:9).  That being said, it can be also deduced that the smoke of the incense represents the High Priest ministry of Jesus, who intercedes and takes our sin before the Father in heaven.   Getting back to Isaiah 6:4 then, we see something very powerful - the coal that touches Isaiah's mouth and cleanses him, thus making him worthy, is a picture of Jesus' Passion on the Cross, and His shed blood for our sins!  And, as a result, we now can boldly approach the Throne of grace, and thus have our communion with the Father God restored.  So, instead of deriding incense as merely a display of "smells and bells," perhaps we should appreciate it more as a symbol of what Christ has done for us, and as a result we can offer our prayers to God as a sweet-smelling savor, like incense.  That being said, let us look at something else then regarding this.

Bishop Randall Adler, the founding primate of the Charismatic Episcopal Church and himself a former Protestant charismatic pastor, has written a very excellent study about this called Making Visible the Void (San Clemente, CA: self-published, 1995).  Although a small book, it provides a rich study aid regarding the Biblical precedent for using incense in the worship of the Church, and I think he sums it well when he makes the following statement on page 26:

The use of incense in Church is not just some ritualistic tool that has no consequence.  It is not simply some aesthetic used to make the church smell pretty.  Instead, it is actually prayer.  How do I know this?  In Revelation 5:8, St. John says, "Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints."  John goes on to say in the eighth chapter, verses three and four, "Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar.  And he was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.  And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel's hand."  This is the worship of the Church Victorious that is offered to God in Heaven, and it is the worship we should replicate here on earth.  The incense we offer before God during the Daily Offices of Prayer and the Holy Eucharist is the prayers of the people.


Adler goes on to say, on pages 27-28, that God not only sanctions the use of incense, but also gives some strict guidelines for using it.  He also maintains - as I do - that the offering of incense is for the intercession of the saints!  One of those strict guidelines for usage is found in Exodus 30:9, where it talks about a prohibition from offering "strange incense" on the altar of God.  This has a very modern-day application to it, and the Church has some strong guidelines for the type of incense used even today.  The reason for this is simply that like so many things, the pagans and other religions do use incense as well, and for the same reason.  However, unlike the accusations often bandied about by some Protestant Evangelicals, the reason pagans use incense is because it is a corruption of God's law; pagans also use incense for intercessions to their deities, and Satan and his demonic hordes have done what they could over the years to corrupt holy things and bastardize them.  So, I say this based on that evidence - the Church did not borrow the use of incense from the pagans, but rather the pagans stole the idea from us!  Incense is Biblical, it is part of the worship of the Heavenly Throne Room (on which both the Hebraic liturgy of the ancient Temple as well as the liturgy of the Church are modeled, by the way!), and thus is not only appropriate for worship, but vital.  However, because Satan likes to corrupt things, he has robbed the Christian churches - in particular the Protestant Evangelicals - of a great blessing by dissemination of false information, hearsay, and prejudice.  If I were to have been exposed to some of the wacky stuff going on out there that some Evangelicals perceive liturgical worship as being, I would not want any part of it either!  However, thankfully, I have learned the truth, and I really and sincerely believe that if Protestant Evangelicals really understood that truth, they would be filling up liturgies to standing capacity, because they would discover something that many of them feel they are probably missing as part of their own Christian walks.  That is why it is time for us to begin to do as II Timothy admonishes by "studying to show ourselves approved," and not listening to stupidity often published by some disgruntled person with an axe to grind, such as the Jack Chick crowd and others. 

Moving on, I came across a good article about the use of incense in the Orthodox Christian liturgies by an Antiochian priest by the name of Father Theodore Ziton entitled "LITURGY AND LIFE -The Use of Incense in Church,"  which you can read for yourself  at http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/liturgics/ziton_use_of_incense.htm.  Fr. Ziton makes some excellent points as he writes the article, and he also uses it to explain the various uses of incense during an Orthodox Liturgy, and here is what he says:

1.  It represents adoration or worship paid to God alone, as present in the Holy Eucharist.  The burning of fragrant spices is symbolic of the unworthiness and humility of creation before He who created us.
2.  It represents prayer, which rises to God as smoke.
3.  It represents grace, as God flows his grace into our souls like the aroma of incense fills the church.

He goes on to mention why icons, relics, and the congregation, as well as the Gospel Book, are incensed at various points in the Liturgy:

1.  To honor God who crowned the saints in heaven (the Church Expectant), and who glorified their bodies.
2.  To show respect for certain friends and servants of the Lord Almighty, as well as for His Holy Gospel.
3.   By incensing the clergy, it represents honoring in their persons Jesus Christ, to Whom in the Liturgy they serve as representatives.
4.  By incensing the people, it shows that we as Christians are yielded vessels and temples of the Holy Spirit.  When we are censed in the congregation, it is also customary to cross ourselves as we receive that, like we do with any blessing.

Fr. Ziton continues that article with the fact that the fire of the incense represents holy zeal, which of course comes from Jesus Himself, and is the divine nature of Jesus Christ.  Fire is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit, the "consuming fire' that renews, cleanses, and convicts us.  As to the aroma and smoke of the incense itself, it represents of course our prayers and intercessions, and like any symbol it also serves to remind us of the importance of a consistent prayer life.  The sweet fragrance shows us that the sincere prayer of His people is pleasing to Him, and that He will honor a prayer prayed in humility and sincerity.  What we see here then, is that incense is an incentive to pursue faithfulness in our Christian walk through prayer.  We petition our needs, intercede for the needs of others, and also respond to the grace of the Holy Spirit's conviction to humbly confess and repent of our sins to God, who through His Son Jesus Christ provides blessed atonement for our sins.  And, that is why the Church uses incense in our worship!

Now, back to the censer itself.  As mentioned the bowl, or thurible, is a picture of the Theotokos, and the coal represents the humanity of Jesus Christ while the fire His divinity as God the Son.  Note too that the thurible is suspended from chains - sometimes three (symbolizing the Trinity of the Godhead) or by four (symbolizing the Four Evangelists that wrote the Holy Gospels).  In the Christian East, often there are some little bells attached to those chains (in the Western Church, censers don't typically have bells), and these you will notice are in groups of three (if there are four chains) or four (if their are three chains).  These bells represent two things:

1.  They are symbolic of the Twelve Apostles, or of the Cherubim about the Throne of God.
2.  They, by their ringing, symbolize praise to the Almighty.

Bells have always been a symbol of both praise and of drawing attention to the important parts of the Liturgy, such as the holiness of God in the Eucharist or during the sung Trisagion (or Sanctus in the Western Church).  I will be doing the next study more in-depth on bells, but for here I wanted to specifically mention that their inclusion on the censer in the East represents something interesting - by swinging the censer, our prayers and praises rise together unto the Lord as one!  Adoration, praise, and thanksgiving to the Almighty are very fundamental to our worship as individuals and as a Church, and the ringing of bells reminds us of that.  And, this will more or less bridge this study with our next one.

It is my hope and prayer that this study has not only dispelled some really dumb misunderstandings about why we as sacramental/liturgical Christians use incense in our worship, but also I hope it instilled a new appreciation for why we do what we do.  Symbolism is the way God speaks to us oftentimes - it is not something to be shunned or discarded, but is rather how He created us to understand things, and throughout Scripture symbolism is used for a lot of things.  As liturgical Christians, we use a lot of symbolism in our worship, as practically even the most minor details of a church's furnishings may have symbolic significance.  In that aspect, it merely means we are surrounding ourselves with these symbols to remind us that God is always near to us as believers, and these symbols also convey profound truths of our faith.  We must remind ourselves - particularly if we have been brought up in this mindset of metaphor and abstraction that characterises much of Evangelicalism, where God is often deprived of his personhood and made a mere abstraction that floats around out there like Caspar the Friendly Ghost or something - that God is real, and we are real people, not ghosts and spooks.  God created our senses for a reason, so let us use all of them to give worship and adoration to Him, for honestly after what He's done for us it is the least we can do.  God be with and bless you all until next time.