The Use of Incense
Isn’t that something Roman Catholics do? Well, yes. But not exclusively. The use of incense is catholic in the best sense of the word, that is, part of the whole, universal Church throughout all the ages. Additionally, incense was used in a variety of ways throughout Scripture symbolizing, cleansing, purification, prayer, and most of all, Christ’s sacrifice for sins as our great High Priest.
So, why use incense? Worship encompasses the whole person. There are sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells, all of which are intended to draw the whole person to the presence and gifts of Christ. Think of it this way: when you smell the incense, look for Jesus. He will be there in His Word, in His body and blood, or bearing our prayers to His Father.
In the Gospel of Luke, the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias was made while he was burning incense in the temple (Luke 1:9-11). He was simply continuing the faithful worship practices of God’s people from the Old Testament. Incense was used first to represent cleansing and purification and the covering of sin, which foreshadowed the sweet fragrance of Christ’s atoning self-sacrifice for the sins of the world (Numbers 16:46-47).
In the Gospel of Matthew, our Lord was given the gift of incense by the Magi when they came to worship the Christ-child (Matthew 2:11). The gift of frankincense confesses the deity of Christ. This, along with the gifts of gold and myrrh, remind us that Jesus was born to be our prophet, priest and king through His life, death and resurrection. In the book of Revelation (5:8 and 8:3-4), incense is used to symbolize the prayers of the faithful saints on earth ascending from earth to heaven, forming a visual and aromatic connection. The Apostle John, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, describes the use of incense in a worship setting: the saints gathered around the altar of the Lamb, offering up their prayers of thanksgiving for the Lamb’s sacrifice for sin.
This recalls the Old Testament sacrifices where incense was used around the altar where the Lord promised to be with His people, cleanse them from their sin, and give them His holiness. Incense, therefore, reminds us of Christ’s perfect, once-for-all sacrifice on the cross that is pleasing to God the Father, making us delightful and holy in His eyes. And so we join David in praying Psalm 141, “Let my prayer rise as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”
The use of incense in Christian worship is a Biblical and historical practice; it is also a matter of Christian freedom, since Scripture does not mandate or forbid its use. We do so out of Christian freedom, mindful of this rich heritage of Biblical and church tradition in order to focus our senses on the teaching of the Gospel and the visualization of the liturgy where God comes to serve man with His Word and Sacraments.