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Why incense?

An extract from a sermon preached on 25th November 2012

As we come to a festival time when we will be using some incense, I thought it might be valuable to explain a bit about the liturgical use of incense so that whether you like the smell or not, you will understand the reasons for it being used as part of worship.

The first thing to notice is that incense is very Biblical. Burning incense was always part of worship in the Temple in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ time. Not only that but the great visions in the book of Revelation of the end and of the new creation, the fulfilment of the kingdom, feature incense all over the place.

“The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

“Let my prayer rise before you as incense”, says the psalmist, “the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice”.

That prayer was prayed during the exile when they grieved that there was no temple in which to offer incense and animal sacrifice. And the meaning of incense is broadly that - as the smoke rises it symbolises our prayers rising to God. And the smoke rises and lingers, it spreads through the air and hangs there - slowly dispelling - so our prayers are not just heard instantaneously but they remain before God. Rather like lighting a candle with a prayer and leaving it to burn, holding that prayer before God as it slowly burns on.

Then the smell of the incense matters. We use the grains of aromatic resin from a special kind of tree called boswellia; a slit is cut in the bark and the sap collected which forms into hard lumps. Then it is mixed with some aromatic oils. In the incense burner we first place some charcoal, which is lit until it glows without a flame - rather like a barbecue - then the grains of incense are poured onto the hot coals and as it melts it gives off the smell and the smoke.

Now of course we all like different fragrances, but the idea of incense is that it is supposed to be a nice smell. It should be sweet and pleasant. In ancient times they imagined the gods smelling the sweet smell and so listening to our prayers. This is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians:

“Christ leads us in triumphal procession and through us spreads in every place the fragrance, the sweet smell of knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God.”

His imagery here is based on everyone being familiar with incense offered in worship as a sweet smell, and he says it is our lives, our faith, and our Christ-likeness which delights God like a lovely perfume. So as well as symbolising our prayers as the smoke rises, incense symbolises God’s delight in us, his enjoyment of his people.

During the service we use the incense in certain special ways as well as swinging it in procession. So we cense the altar, we cense the gospel book, we cense the elements of bread and wine, the priest and the people.

Why do we do all that? Not just to have more smoke around!

It is about holiness. We are marking out certain things as holy. Now holy isn’t just about goodness, moral purity. Of course we want to be good and pure and we pray for cleansing from sin. But biblically, holiness means being set apart for a special reason by God. Being set apart, separated from ordinary everyday use. When Isaiah was called to be a prophet, he saw the house filled with smoke - that was incense - and the angel cleansed him with a burning coal from the altar. He was set apart.

So we cense the altar to show that it is no ordinary table. It has a special,therefore a holy function. We cense the gospel book as it stands for the Word of God, Jesus the Word, among us, just as we stand to honour the gospel and sing alleluias. We cense the bread and wine as a sign their they are not ordinary food. They will become to us the body and blood of our Lord. We cense the priest - she is ordained to represent Christ at this sacrament - and we cense you the people - you also are set apart, consecrated by God to his service. You are the body of Christ. You are holy.

Now I hope that this helps you to understand the purpose and meaning of incense in worship - notwithstanding the last point I want to make about the smoke of incense - which is that it is also about mystery. It evokes awe and wonder at the eternal mystery of God, whom we have not seen, cannot see, our vision is not suited to that. The smoke obscures the air briefly, as a reminder that “we see through a glass, darkly”. It is salutary for us to be reminded every now and again that our concept of God is always incomplete, inadequate, that God is other, transcendent, holy.

So we will continue to put out the notice letting you know if incense will be used, and we will be using some next week for Advent Sunday, and then the next time will be at Midnight Mass. I pray that it will enhance for you the experience of worship and enable you to worship with all of your senses, smell included.