As a Lutheran I wonder why we might use incense during worship? I suspect that the pushback is largely anti-Catholicism, but sometimes more information is helpful. I’d be interested in hearing what wisdom you bring to bear on the question “Why incense?”
The use of incense was ubiquitous in the ancient world from western Europe to the far East. Incense accompanied sacrifices and sometimes served as the offering itself. A rationalistic explanation is often given that the sweet smell of incense cut the odor of the slaughter of animals for sacrifices. But we must remember that the animals were burned or boiled immediately. Most people would delight in the smell of a barbecue. So, no, the incense was not for the people; it was for the gods. The gods liked the odor. The same might be said of cut flowers that also accompanied Greco-Roman sacrifices and the perfume in which the offerers bathed before offering their sacrifice. Sacrifices in the ancient world were olfactory events for which modern Western people have no comparable experience. We are olfactorily deprived.
Incense is ubiquitous throughout South and East Asia. It is used by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Taoists, and Shintoists as offerings to the gods and to honor ancestors. In Buddhism incense is burned to honor the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. It is offered to create several positive conditions supportive of good karma, including overcoming pride and selfishness by giving away something valuable with generosity. The atmosphere of Buddhist Temples can be an olfactory rite.
This olfactory riot was no less the case in the cult of Yahweh in the Old Testament. Exodus 30 gives explicit directions for the building of the altar of incense in the Tabernacle. Aaron the high priest was directed to offer “fragrant incense” on it every morning and evening. As is typical of cultic instructions in the Torah, no explanations are given. Yahweh commands it, so just do it. Not until Psalm 141:5 do we learn that incense is related to prayer: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” This analogy is reprised in Revelation 8:3-4:
Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angels.”
The only other actual reference to incense in the New Testament is its inclusion of frankincense among the gifts of the wise men from the east to the Christ-child (Matthew 2:11). The symbolic meanings of the three gifts are not mentioned, but the carol “We three kings of orient are” is not wrong to say “incense owns a deity nigh.” Incense was always associated with deity. The gifts of the wise men were viewed as a fulfillment of Isaiah 60:6: “All those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
One of the remarkable things about the early Christian cult from the perspective of the surrounding world is the total absence of animal sacrifices and incense. Christian worship centered on a common meal as the context for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which was often shared in the home of a church member. We don’t know whether there might have been floral arrangements or bowls of incense at the banquet such as might be present in other Greco-Roman banquets. Certainly one thing that might have suggested to Christians that they should not offer incense is that during times of persecution they would be asked to offer a pinch of incense to Caesar as a show of their loyalty. Since the Caesars were deified, Christians could not do this without committing apostasy.
On the other hand, after Christianity was legalized by the Edict of Milan in 313, and began moving their liturgical assemblies into basilicas during the fourth century, daily public morning and evening prayer services were instituted. These were seen as a spiritual continuation of the daily prayers in the old Jerusalem Temple and incense began to be used. When bishops were accorded the dignity of magistrates in the Roman state, they were entitled to be preceded by lights, incense, and bands of singers. So their entrance into the basilicas brought these accessories with them in processions. Along with actual offerings of bread and wine at what became the offertory procession, incense was also used. Thus incense found entre into the Eucharistic liturgy.
The farther east you went, the more copious was the use of incense—almost non-stop throughout liturgies. In the Western Church, Roman ritual precision reigned and incense was used only at particular moments during the Mass—censing the altar at the entrance, the gospel book during the gospel procession, the gifts and the ministers during the offertory, and during the consecration of the Eucharist. Orthodox services might have several censers going at once.
Did the use of incense continue in the Lutheran churches? At the time of the Reformation, yes—here and there. In his treatise on “The Form of the Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg” (1523), Luther refers to the traditional Gospel procession when he writes, “the Gospel lesson follows, for which we neither prohibit nor prescribe candles or incense. Let these things be free” (LW 53:25).
A lot of liturgical accoutrements were in the churches that adopted the Reformation, including thuribles (incense pots). Lutherans then as now were reluctant to throw things away. Luther himself advised pastors and congregations to use these things until they are used up, or a decision is made to discard them. Many churches had censers and they were sometimes used, for example, in the Magdeburg Cathedral before the Lord’s Supper and in the Duchy of Weimar at Christmas Matins.
Little by little these pre-Reformation accoutrements were “used up” and not replaced. The Age of Rationalism would have discouraged their use anyway. After a generation or two these things are no longer remembered and retrieving them is not easy. There is probably nothing more difficult to retrieve than incense. A lot of people will regard it as “Catholic.”) Have they been in a Roman Catholic church lately?) However, it has found a more winsome way back into Lutheran use at evening prayer (LBW Vespers) and Taizé. This use has worked best when incense is placed on burning coals in a stationary bowl.
Some pastors have ventured to restore the use of a swinging censer in the Eucharistic liturgy. In my last parish I found a thurible in the sacristy and was told that it had been used at Evening Prayer and at a few Sunday morning services like All Saints’ Day. I also added it on festivals like The Epiphany and the Ascension. At Christ the Mediator Church in Chicago, incense was used on many Sundays as well as Evening Prayer during my pastorate.
Can anything new said about incense? Well, in fact, the ancients were on to the health benefits of frankincense. Studies at Johns Hopkins and Jerusalem Universities have indicated that it can serve as an anti-depressant and soothes anxiety. An online article states that “The health benefits of Frankincense Essential Oil can be attributed to its properties as an antiseptic, disinfectant, astringent, carminative, cicatrisant, cytophylactic, digestive, diuretic, emenagogue, expectorant, sedative, tonic, uterine and vulnerary substance” (see https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/essential-oils/health-benefits-of-frankincense-essential-oil.html).
Still, there are people who claim to have an allergic reaction to incense. Incense is made of ground up spices, wood bark, herbs, flowers, whatever the fragrance is, stuck together with tree sap. People could be allergic to some of these substances. But there are different blends. I found that by trying a different blend the problem might be solved for some people. For other people, incense might be an irritant (although that might be the burning charcoal rather than the fragrances). One could hold a handkerchief over one’s nose until the smoke dissipates. Having a good ventilating system helps. You can also store the censer in the sacristy when it is not in use at the altar. Still, I have to wonder why we don’t hear about allergic reactions to incense from Eastern Christians, Hindus, and Buddhist monks who get much greater doses of it than we Western Christians do. Maybe that’s the answer. They develop an immunity to it.
In any event, my advice to pastors is: buy good quality frankincense that does have a sweet-smelling savor, not the cheap pontifical incense that smells like burning trash.
Pastor Frank Senn