By Father Wade Miller
In Psalm 141:2 we read, “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” Incense represents prayer and sacrifice. Some have noted that incense was used in the early church to cover up certain smells, especially since the aroma from the marketplace would make its way into the worship space. Although there is merit to such a practical observation, this is not the real reason for using incense. Incense has a two-fold purpose. It is used as a symbol of prayer, the offering up oneself to God, and to set apart or consecrate objects or people in the context of worship (Exodus 30:34-38).
Incense is a powerful symbol since human beings possess various senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching. All the human senses are to be used in the context of worship. This is very foreign to those who believe that worship is merely intellectual or emotional. The former elevates the Minister and the sermon as sole priority. This is the fallacy of the Puritan. The emphasis on the sermon alone, which can be seen in placing the pulpit in the middle of the worship space, often leads to a personality cult of the Pastor. It can also make the congregation mere spectators and judges of a rehearsed lecture.
The emphasis on the emotional often elevates personal experience as the means of one’s communion with God. The problem, however, is that human emotions are always in flux, so that worship becomes a reflection of one’s mood rather than something beyond the individual experience. This is the fallacy of the Pietist (i.e. one that seeks to rid worship of all outward forms in exchange for ‘sincerity of the heart’). Emotions are an important part of the human psyche, but they can be dangerous when they become the sole vehicle of ascertaining truth. Anglicanism understands the necessity of the mind and the emotions, stressing true conversion of the heart. True conversion, however, comes from the outward and objective work of Christ received in the sacraments, which are the vehicles that make us participants in the Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus.
Incense enables one to use the sense of smell to set-apart the holy from the ordinary in the worship of God. This does not negate the use of reason or emotion, but the smell of incense enables the worshipper to understand the importance of sacred space. This essay will explore the following uses of incense in the context of the liturgy.
The Processional - During the processional, the cross leads the people into the most holy of holies. Incense sanctifies this sacred space with the aroma of heaven that rises upward as an offering of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord.
The Recessional - At the recessional, the cross leads the baptized back out into the world. Incense is a reminder of the fact that prayer and the offering of oneself is to be an ongoing reality for the Christian in everyday life, and in one’s daily vocation.
The Gospel Book - Incense is used at the time when the deacon or priest reads from the book containing the words of Jesus. The book is set apart (censed) because it contains the very Word of God. It helps the people come to attention before hearing these most holy words of truth and wisdom.
The Celebrant - The celebrant, which is either the bishop or priest, is set apart as the one who leads the people of God before their Creator and Redeemer at the altar. Before entering this sacred place and offering the sacrifice of thanksgiving, the celebrant is censed to set him apart for this most holy task as the one who represents Christ here on earth. The celebrant is also a member of the whole priesthood who represents the people in this mutual exchange of love. The English word “vicar” often signifies the priest or bishop in its meaning of “one in second of command.” Jesus is the eternal priest and captive of our salvation, who acts through his appointed servants.
The Gifts - The gifts are simply the bread and wine that have been placed on the altar prior to the consecration. Censing these gifts symbolizes that the bread and wine will be set apart as the body and blood of Jesus, which gives life and sustenance to the baptized Christian. As our Lord said, “Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
The People - The people are censed as well. The people offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving together in unison and love. All human beings are made in the image of God. As icons of God, human beings are called to do what they were created for; to work in the service of both God and neighbor. Together, human beings (i.e. icons) offer their sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God as his royal priests. This work is a delight because it is something we do with the whole company of heaven (Revelation 8:3-4). Incense is not a requirement for worship, nor does it contain the same importance as the sacraments. It enables the people of God, however, to be reminded that that they are in the presence of the Lord, worshipping Him with the whole church in the here and now with those who have gone before us.