Incense has been used in the worship of God since the time of Moses, and its use is commanded by God (Exodus 30). Clouds of incense symbolise the glory of God that is present as we worship Him. When the Priest directs the incense towards the worshipers he is paying homage and respect to the image of God in each one of us. Let's learn about what incense is, how it is used in worship, and its historical significance.
What is incense?
It is a material consisting of aromatic gums and spices that produces a fragrant smoke when burned. The ingredients are usually frankincense (a fragrant gum resin chiefly from East African or Arabian trees), styrax (a resin from trees of the witch-hazel family), benzoin (a resin from trees in S.E. Asia), and cascarilla bark (a west Indian shrub) combined in various proportions. Other substances often used in incense include balsam, cinnamon, myrrh, sandalwood and musk.
Remember that ‘frankincense’ was one of the gifts brought to Jesus by the three wise men from the East (Matthew 2:11).
Incense is used by placing it in a censer with burning charcoal, which makes a beautiful fragrance waft up.
The censer is a small bowl or basin hanging from three chains. The chains have bells attached to them, so that when the censer is swung or rocked back-and-forth it creates a sweet sound as it fills the room with incense.
The basin represents the sacred womb of the Mother of Christ this bears the divine coal who is Christ, Who fills the whole universe with fragrance.
The twelve bells on the censer represent the twelve apostles proclaiming the joy of the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and the three chains represent the Trinity.
The incense symbolises the rising of our prayers to God.
In Psalm 141:2 we read:
Let my prayer be set before You as incense.
The significance of ‘fragrance’
As a rose that is crushed produces a powerful fragrance, even more so, the Body of Jesus when broken on the cross for our salvation produced the sweetest fragrance this world has ever experienced. Ephesians 5:2 says:
Christ loved us and gave Himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
We should remember the words of 2 Corinthians 2:14-15:
God uses us to make the knowledge about Christ spread everywhere like a sweet fragrance. For we are like a sweet smelling incense offered by Christ to God, which spreads among those who are being saved and those who are being lost.
A prayer from the ancient liturgy of St. James says:
Receive from us, your unworthy servants, O Lord, this incense for a fragrant sacrifice, and make fragrant the stench of our soul and body.
John of Kronstadt once said:
The fragrance of incense reminds us by analogy of the fragrance of virtue, and by contrast of the evil odour of sins.
One supplicatory Canon has this prayer:
Jesus, sweet scented Flower, make me fragrant.
The concept of the fragrant offering has also been incorporated into the liturgy:
For the precious gifts here offered... let us pray... that our God who loves mankind, Who has received them into His holy and heavenly altar for a sweet-smelling savour of spiritual fragrance may send down upon us divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit
Incense is also used in the funeral service: the body of the deceased is censed to pay respect to the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Incense as a confession of faith
In the Roman Empire subjects of Caesar were required to throw a pinch of incense into a fire which burned in front of his statue acknowledging Caesar to be their true lord. The early Christians refused to do this and were thrown to the lions.
Burning incense before Jesus is a public confession of faith in Him as our true Lord.
Incense in the Bible
When God gave Moses instructions for the Tabernacle that was built in the wilderness, he was told to build an altar of incense immediately before the Holy of Holies. An offering was to burn continually on the coals of fire. Exodus 30 contains instructions for building an altar for the burning of incense. Exodus 30:7-8 reads:
Every morning when Aaron comes to get the lamps ready, he is to burn sweet-smelling incense on [the altar]. He must do the same when he lights the lamps in the evening. This offering of incense is to continue without interruption for all time to come.
There were regular times during the day when it was specifically attended. The continually rising smoke symbolized the prayers of God’s people. It was the custom in the Old Testament for one priest to be selected by lot each day to offer incense to God.
In Old Testament thought, the presence of God is regularly connected with a cloud, like when Moses met God in a cloud (Ex.19:16), and when a cloud overshadowed Christ at His Transfiguration, the voice of God spoke from the cloud (Mark 9:7).
Saint Symeon of Salonika writes:
Like a cloud also the incense is offered, symbolizing the Holy Spirit and the transmission of His divine grace and fragrance.
In Luke 1:8-23 we read the story of the Priest Zechariah — husband of Elizabeth — who was to be the father of John the Baptist. In the story it was the day when Zechariah had been selected to perform the incense offering. While he was attending to the incense in the Temple the Angel Gabriel appeared to him and foretold the birth of a son.
In the Revelation of John 8:3-4:
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer: and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.
We see here that incense represents the prayers of the saints, both those in heaven and those on earth, rising up to God as a fragrant offering of thanksgiving, as they sing the song, “Worthy is the Lamb.”