Have you noticed the smell of incense in church this Easter? Do you know why the priests are swinging this “thurible” around? Below, you will find an explanation that explains the reason for incense in our worship.
Liturgy is the formal public worship of the Church – its work. The liturgy of the Church is made up of the liturgy of each individual Christian, and should be the best that we can possibly offer to God. Christian worship flows out of our love of God and our desire to express that love. As such we should worship Him with “all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength”. Good liturgy is designed to stimulate just such a response in us, by exciting the senses and feeding our imagination. The use of incense enables even fuller participation in the liturgy by stimulating the sense of smell. It also provides color, movement and sound as the thurible is swung and its chain ‘chinks’ and ‘tinkles’.
The sweet smell of incense and its rising smoke gives it a kind of natural symbolism. It becomes the image of something pleasing to God. The rising smoke symbolizes a person’s or people’s prayers rising up to God. So in Psalm 141 we have the plea, “Let my prayer come like incense before you.”
Symbols in liturgy also help point our minds in the direction of invisible realities, and speak to us in a language often richer than words alone. As a symbol, incense is exceptionally rich in associations. Of its many possible associations, two are particularly worthy of mention:
- In St. Matthew 2:11 we read of the Magi bringing Frankincense (a particular type of incense) as a gift to the Christ child. The words of that well-loved Christmas carol “We three kings”: “Incense owns a Deity nigh” mean that incense is a sign of our belief in the Real Presence of Christ, the Son of God. What was good enough for the Magi is surely good enough for us!
- In the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, the burning of incense appears to be an important part of the worship of heaven. In chapter 5 verse 8 we read of “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the Saints” This whole book is full of symbolism. Many commentators believe that Saint John, the writer of the book, was strongly influenced by the worship, or liturgy, of his own church. When we burn incense we remind ourselves that our prayers, like the incense, ascend to the throne of God and mingle with the prayers of the Saints in heaven.
In the Old Testament God commanded His people to burn incense (e.g., Exodus 30:7, 40:27, inter alia). In sum, incense is used to venerate, bless, and sanctify. Its smoke conveys a sense of mystery and awe. It is a reminder of the sweet-smelling presence of our Lord. Its use adds a feeling of solemnity to the Eucharist. The visual imagery of the smoke and the smell reinforce the transcendence of the Eucharist linking Heaven with Earth, allowing us to enter into the presence of God. The smoke symbolizes the burning zeal of faith that should consume all Christians, while the fragrance symbolizes Christian virtue. Incensing may also be viewed in the context of a “burnt offering” given to God. In the Old Testament animal offerings were partially or wholly consumed by fire. In essence, to burn something was to give it to God.