incense, Worship

Frank Answers About the Use of Incense

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.

Incense prayer sticks in Thien Hau Pagoda Hochi Minh Vietnam

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.

Altar boys arrive in procession during a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI to commemorate cardinals and bishops who died during the year, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican November 3, 2011. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (VATICAN – Tags: RELIGION TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

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 (swinging 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 of  non-use 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 Evening Prayer). This use has worked best when incense is placed on burning coals in a stationary bowl in front of the Vespers candle.

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

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 have developed 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




  1. Amy Schifrin

    This is why I gave my son an Eastern Thurible with its sweet bells, and some high-class incense for his seminary graduation last spring. If a vicar or pastor already has one, it may be easier for a congregation to experience their own prayers rising as incense.

  2. Kester "Chip" Sobers

    Frank, as usual you are correct. People seldom mind incense when it is burned in a stationary vessel rather than “swinging the pot.” When I came to Good Shepherd in 1975 the previous pastor left me under the impression that incense had been used in the parish. As it turned out that was part of a good natured body of folklore. My first Christmas Eve I used a liberal offering of incense at the appropriate places. The reaction was mixed to say the least.
    At any rate we continued its use in much less liberal fashion until LBW was introduced. I was on a regional team for its intro and folks felt that to be loyal to me in a national position they should get “the book” right away and use it as fully as possible. I still recall some of our evening prayer offices with combined choirs, guest soloists, etc. Any negative reactions were very good natured and only from non-liturgical guests.
    Eventually we invested in a brazier and incense was used at all Advent and most Lenten masses.
    Thanks so much for the informative article.

    • Comment by post author

      I was among the liturgy graduate students at Notre Dame in the 1970s when we experimented with the form of Evening Prayer (Vespers) that was the basis of the LBW order. In the daily office in the log chapel on campus we used a bowl of incense. On Sundays Evening Prayer was held in the Lady chapel of Sacred Heart Basilica on campus and there we used a thurible to incense the people during Psalm 141 (a visible absolution) and the altar during the Magnificat (prayers rising). As I introduced the LBW Evening Prayer in congregations I served I never had any resistance to using a bowl of incense—placed on a low table in front of the Vespers candle. I think these sensual aspects made LBW Vespers popular.

  3. Roy Washill

    Some of us have been curious as to the background of the traditional offertory ritual, that of censing the gifts with three circles (2 counterclockwise and 1 clockwise) followed by 3 signs of the cross withe the thurible. I ventured the circles signify the eternity of God. Is the origin known?

    • Comment by post author

      The censing of the gifts on the altar was a development in the Carolingian Frankish Church, not in Rome. Here is what I know. First, Amalarius of Metz associated the censing at the offertory with the incense offering of the Old Testament. Second, the Holy Eucharist always received three swings as a sign of the highest honor. Third, incense began to be used for blessing objects. If they were laying flat, censing motions in the shape the sign of the cross were traced over the objects. If you put all this together, here’s what I think you get: the circular motions create smoke that will rise up as an offering to God. The gifts are censed three times to indicate that they are worthy of the highest honor and this is done by tracing the sign of the cross as a gesture of blessing. Symbolic significance gets you into allegory, of which the Carolingians and their descendants were very fond.

  4. O.C.C.

    Incense was a nice aspect of worship for me until I had trouble breathing afterward. When my pulmonologist told me I had to limit my exposure to worship, it was devastating news. I’m not that old, but I can’t handle the particulate matter that gets into my lungs and stays there. It’s a problem not to be minimized. Here is a chart that explains how there are real individual differences, but it’s not really a good idea for anyone:

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