The theology of incense
Everyone loves the smell of incense. The door to the sanctuary swings open and, immediately, you’re hit with a cloud of fragrance. You go take your seat, offer your intentions, and wait for the Liturgy to begin. Shortly after, a bell rings, and all present stand as the clergy, robed in glittering gilded vestments process forward, accompanied by the source of the smell — a small, bronze, smoking, sphere. As this sacred march passes beside you towards the Crucified Jesus at the sanctuary’s center, Psalm 141 comes to mind: “Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as the incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.”
Incense has been widely used in varied ways throughout the ages. Common to many world religions, incense recognizes the presence of the Divine. However, for the Christian, incense means something even more: a model for the Christian to imitate Christ Himself in His very act of Love.
In the Abrahamic tradition, incense traces its divine ordinance to the time of the “Tent of Meeting,” the traveling tabernacle that Moses was instructed to build during the time of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. God, in His great Love, commanded Moses to build an “altar of incense” which He desired to be put “before the veil that is by the ark of the covenant, before the mercy seat that is over the covenant, where I [God] will meet with you” (Exodus 30:6).
Because of this divine command, there will always be a cloud of incense covering the “Holy of Holies,” the place where God Himself dwells. When the priests would witness the cloud going up before the LORD, they would always recognize His presence, just as He was present to them in a “pillar of cloud by day and…[a] pillar of fire by night” (Exodus 13:22). Christianity retains this significance, for the cloud reminds us that God Loves and, therefore, He Dwells.
Christianity builds on the Old Testament understanding of incense through its role in worship and its acknowledgement of Christ’s presence. With the use of incense, the Christian should notice the fundamental aspects of its function in worship and in the life of the faithful. First, incense is our model for our Gospel-driven life. Incense is made from pearls of sap pulled from trees that are dried and then later blessed and burned, emitting a fragrant smoke that rises to heaven. Per tradition, our own personal prayers and offerings rise with the incense. This process additionally evokes the image of Christ, who was laid and died upon a tree, but rose triumphantly from the dead, inviting us to imitate him in this great act of Love.
To our amazement, it doesn’t stop there. Just as in the Old Testament, this cloud of incense marks God’s real presence in our midst. That’s why incense is heavily used at any occasion of Eucharistic worship, such as the celebration of the Mass and exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. That doesn’t explain, though, why the congregation is incensed in addition to the Sacrament, especially during the Eucharistic Liturgy.
Fr. Barnabas Powell, a Greek Orthodox priest from Cumming, Georgia, while describing the Orthodox Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, explains that the congregation is incensed after the physical symbols of Christ (images) in Worship because we too are living icons of Christ. If we, as God’s children, are truly made in His image and likeness as Genesis 1:26 says, then we are living icons of Christ Himself and Him Crucified. Therefore, God Dwells and Loves in us! We are, in a way, “other Christs!” What great Love, that we too are Temples of the Lord. Incense recognizes this unique identity reminds us of our calling to serve our neighbor, for the real Presence of Love, the Presence of God, is recognized in them.
As the incense in procession passes by you at Mass, remember the call to love and to sacrifice just as the Lord Jesus did (and does), and may this holy remembrance raise to mind, like a cloud of incense, the image of the Crucified in others, that you too may “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).
Jack Consolie is a junior from Knott Hall studying Theology and Arabic Studies. He serves as one of Knott’s liturgical commissioners, in addition to serving other roles in Campus Ministry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.