Why Do We Use Incense in Our Worship Service?


Image: The Prayer Foundation logo (with white Celtic cross on a green shield).

By Monk Preston

(Co-Founder and President, The Prayer Foundation)


Photo: of a lit candle.

Image: portion of illuminated manuscript page from "The Book of Kells."Stained glass window depiction of a thurible, St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts   "Do you always use incense?"

A young woman about 19 years old, who was raised in and still attends a Foursquare Church (Pentecostal), has visited our monastery twice and attended two of our daily Worship Services.  Later, she asked me if we always used incense in our Services?  My answer was "yes".  But I felt that the tone of her voice when she had asked her question really implied, "Why would you want to do that?"

One day a few months later, one of our Monks asked me if there was any Scriptural basis for our using incense?

My answer once more was "yes".   However, I could see now that it was time to write an article (this article) and answer these questions more fully---both the spoken and the implied.

Image: Photo of an incense spoon, "boat", and Censer.

(L. to R.) An incense spoon, storage "boat", and Censer.  We put a "coal" of charcoal in the Censer, light it, and spoon grains of incense unto the red-hot, glowing coal.  The Censer is then swung by its chains.  Each time it is swung, sweet-smelling clouds of incense billow forth.

In the Old Testament, God commanded His people to offer incense in worship.

Pure incense is the resin from certain trees found in limited areas of the Middle East like Ethiopia and Eritrea.  In ancient times it was obtained only at great expense.

In the book of Exodus (Chapter 30), God commanded Moses to make an altar of acacia wood for the burning of incense.  Aaron is to burn incense morning and evening.  Moses is given special instructions for making the incense to be used exclusively for the worship of God (Exodus 30:34-38).  One of the many ingredients given in God's list was frankincense.

Among the gifts of the Magi given to the baby Jesus was frankincense--a gift worthy of a king.

Incense is a symbol for the prayers of God's people.

"Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. . . ."  -Psalm 141:2

The people would pray outside of the Holy of Holies while the priest inside offered incense upon the golden altar.

“And the whole multitude of people were praying outside at the hour of incense.”  -Luke 1:10

In the Old Testament, God established a formal, liturgical type of worship.  Historic, formal liturgical Christian worship services have sometimes incorrectly been accused of being derived from Judaism.  In fact, they are derived directly from the New Testament---from the worship in Heaven that the Apostle John reveals to us in the book of Revelation.

"An 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 of God; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the Saints from the hand of the angel before God."  -Revelation 8:3-4

In the Bible, clouds are often used as a sign of God's presence.                         

Another characteristic of incense is that it forms a cloud.  A cloud in the Bible often reveals God's presence.  The Israelites were led by the pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:22).  A cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled it (Exodus 40:34).  

During the Transfiguration of Christ, a cloud appears and the Voice of God is heard from it (Matthew 17:5).  In the book of Acts, Jesus is taken up into a cloud (Acts 1:8).

When we use incense, and experience its aromatic perfume through our sense of smell, we are helping to involve the entirety of our person in worship.  We are to consecrate all of ourselves to God; mind, heart, will, strength, emotions and senses.  All of our senses: touch, sight, taste, hearing, and even smell! 

The smell of incense in a home in Bible times signaled the impending visit of someone of importance.

In ancient times incense was used to sweeten and purify the air before an important visitor arrived (only an important visitor, because incense was very expensive, and so could only be used on special occasions).

Christ taught us that He is in the midst of us wherever two or three are gathered in His Name (Matthew 18:20).  Who is a more important visitor than our Creator?  Our Lord may not be physically visible, but He has promised to be present.  The beautiful aroma of incense reminds us to be aware of His presence.

"And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour."      -Ephesians 5:2

Our Lord was buried wrapped in incense.

In our Worship Service, everything and everyone is censed to emphasize that everything and everyone is set aside for and dedicated to God's service.  By using incense as it in shown to be used in the worship of the saints in Heaven, we confirm and illustrate the essential unity of Christians in Heaven and on Earth, as well as our participation in the things of Heaven. 

Incense was used when sacrifices were made in the Old Testament.  When our Lord died, no incense was burned.  Instead, He was buried wrapped in incense.  The aromatic clouds of incense we smell during our times of worship remind us that our Lord was sacrificed for our benefit.  

The Apostle Paul applies this same metaphor to us when he says that we are the aroma of Christ to God.  Paul says that we are God's incense.  His Gift, both to Himself, and to the world.

 "For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish:
To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life.  And who is sufficient for these things?"
              -II Corinthians 2:15,16

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Daily Prayer: Praying the Hours   PRAYER Category

"For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts."  -Malachi 1:11

Use of Incense in Christian Worship:

Historically, in the Church, the use of Incense has been understood as symbolizing both the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, and even more especially, the prayers of the saints (all believers, Christians) rising to heaven. ___________