How is incense used in worship?
The use of incense was a part of the religious rites of ancient cultures and has also had a long history in both Judaism and Christianity. Incense is mentioned frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Luke 1 Zechariah is in the temple at the time of the incense offering. The psalmist expresses the symbolism of incense and prayer: “Let my prayer rise like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:1) The gifts the Magi offered to the Christ Child included gold, frankincense and myrrh. In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 the knowledge of Christ is compared to a fragrant odor. The vision of heaven in Revelation includes the elders holding bowls of incense, described as the prayers of the saints. (Revelation 5:8)
The clouds of incense represent cleansing and purification, and the sweet smell suggests Christ’s robe of righteousness that covers our sin. Incense is sometimes used to give honor to holy things and holy people, the primary symbols of the liturgy. For example, the gospel book, the altar, the bread and wine, the ministers and the assembly are incensed as a way of showing their importance in worship. Incense is also used to add a festive accompaniment to processions, adding “holy clouds” and “holy smells” to the air.
Incense deepens our experience of the liturgy because it incorporates the sense of smell. The liturgy involves all of our senses, showing the significance of our bodies and all of God’s creation. The sweet swell of incense is a doorway to the holy in the same way that beautiful music, flowers, and stained glass can lead us to ponder the mystery of God’s presence. As “catholic Christians” we rejoice that we can incorporate the richness of Church’s tradition in many forms, and thus feel connected to the Church around the world and through the ages.
A congregation that wants to introduce incense in the liturgy may choose to first purchase a brazier or pottery bowl. Incense could be used before the service or during the Great Thanksgiving. The strongest connections to scripture will be made by using incense during Psalm 141 at Evening Prayer (“Let my prayer rise before you as incense).” A bowl of incense can also be carried in a procession before the cross.
A thurible (also known as a censer) is the vessel that is typically suspended by chains and used for carrying incense in a procession. The grains of incense are kept in a vessel known as an incense boat and are then sprinkled by a spoon onto a lighted charcoal in the thurible. The person who carries the thurible is called a thurifer.
In the liturgy of Holy Communion, the thurible may be used in the entrance procession (marking the space and the gathered people of God), the gospel procession (marking the highpoint of the Word portion of the liturgy), at the offertory to cense the bread and wine (marking the Meal portion), and at sending (heightening the importance of our ministry in the world). During Morning and Evening Prayer the altar is often censed during the Gospel Canticle, connecting daily prayer with it’s central foundation, the holy eucharist.
In some congregations there will be those who resist the use of incense due to allergies or because it is considered “catholic.” The latter concern can be addressed by stressing how our entire liturgy and its symbols and actions are based in our common western catholic tradition. The former concern needs to be considered pastorally. Some congregations use “non-choking” or “hypo-allergenic” incense. Others announce ahead of time on which Sundays or at what services incense will be used. Opening a window, turning on a ceiling fan, or using a modest amount of incense are other ways of being sensitive to the whole congregation without compromising the richness that incense can bring to the liturgy.