Of incense and its goodness

A BBC article on incense generated a lot of interest on Facebook among my churchy friends last week. Why? The article suggests that frankincense could be a cure for cancer! (Before you set up a giant thurible, read this article from 2001.)

Fighting cancer isn’t the only possibly benefit of incense, of course. Blogging friend Nicholas Knisely tweeted an article which claims that people get along better when places smell good. So maybe a few 360s from a clever thurifer are just the ticket to heal that nasty conflict in your parish.

But of course, these are not the best reasons to use incense in church. If we only cared about fighting cancer or being nice, we’d eat macrobiotic meals in subdued lighting while hearing guided meditations. No, we gather in worship, and we use incense, to manifest God’s presence for us. We use incense and we worship to glorify God. I found a brilliant leaflet with a clever title, “Why is incense used?” on the website of St. John’s, Detroit. Among other things, it says,

Incense is not used merely because it is pretty, or because it smells sweet, or because we like “high church”, but rather because, as a living link with Christians and Jewish antiquity, it assures us that the early Christians believed as we believe, that when we gather together in his Name, God is in our midst, that we do not merely remember a dead Jew but have Communion with a Living Christ, that we do not merely long for a heaven that is “up yonder” or “in the sweet by and by,” but adore an Eternal Lord who is “right here and now.” It adds to our service an atmosphere of mystery – and well it might. For it signifies an invasion of the Eternal into time, of the Infinite All Holy into the midst of his people.

That’s it! It always strikes me as odd that people will object to incense — or to chanting, or to music they don’t know, or to anything out of their experience — with an “I don’t like it.”

It’s as if people think I’m making stuff up when it comes to liturgy, rather than seeking to place us deeply in a stream of ancient worship that spans countless generations across the globe. Whether I “like” something, or whether anyone “likes” something, is quite beside the point. The only real question is, “Does this make God’s presence real?” And perhaps before I answer that question, I had better learn more about that which I am considering. Perhaps I should seek to enter fully into the mystery of sacred liturgy. Perhaps I should ask myself whether the liturgy should fit our needs, or whether we should conform to the ancient liturgy of the church.

As the St. John’s leaflet concludes (pardon the non-inclusive language, which I have left unedited):

So when incense is offered, it should properly awe and impress us with the terrifying fact of the imminent entrance of Him who flung the stars into space and who numbers the hairs of our heads, yet whose tender love is concerned with the sparrow’s fall, who willed to be laid in a manger and nailed to a cross that you and I might know His love for all eternity.

Understanding its ancient meaning, as purification before the entrance of an important visitor, incense as the Church uses it is eloquent testimony and a vivid dramatization of the Church’s most cherished beliefs and vital experiences: God’s coming to man, really and actually, in man’s worship of God.

Incense is an interesting case study. Its use was surely universal in Christianity for centuries. In many parts of the world today, it would be unthinkable to offer a service without burning copious amounts of incense. And yet, here in the US, it is too often seen as an unwelcome intrusion. Perhaps this says something about us even more than it tells us about incense.

We have become so-consumer oriented in our approach to church (not just liturgy, but scriptures, beliefs, and disciplines) that we reject out of hand anything that doesn’t strike our fancy. We rarely push ourselves to consider learning to love something that initially repels us. We do not often enough contemplate that the unknown or unfamiliar or uncomfortable may hold great delights and wonders. We neglect the fact that we are but one generation among countless others who comprise the Church.

This is not an apologia for high church worship. The same could be said of many of us, including Catholic-minded Anglican priests. I am regularly pushed to consider seriously that which initially displeases or puzzles me. Sometimes, I end up concluding my first impression was right. But often I receive God’s grace in striking, powerful new ways.

Back to incense. It goes without saying that it adds a “fifth sense” to our worship. It also adds visual mystery in its swirling, fragrant clouds. Maybe we need the spiritual benefits of incense more than we think. Each time we use incense at mass, I bless it in the sacristy before the entrance procession with these words (addressed to the incense itself): “May you be blessed by him in whose honor you shall be consumed.”

That’s not a very modern thing to do — speaking to an inanimate object, talking about being consumed, and thinking that all we do is in Christ’s honor. Perhaps that’s just the key to taking us out of consumerism — to think more about sacrifice and true consumption, as we are drawn into the fullness of worship.

Photo from here.

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8 Responses

  1. Robin Usher says:

    Incense permeates the whole worship area, from altar to back pew, it reaches places that word and action do not reach, it is inclusive, it includes everyone.

  2. Bryan Owen says:

    This is a fantastic article, Scott! I’ve never thought about the use of incense in worship in quite this way before, and I find the perspective refreshing. I also think you really hit the nail on the head in your observation about how consumer-oriented we’ve become in our approach to all things related to church. No doubt it’s an oversimplification to say it, but I do wonder if mainline Christianity’s tendency to cater to that consumer-orientation (giving people what we think they want) is one of the reasons why we are in decline and regarded as increasingly irrelevant.

  3. Jim DeLa says:

    You’re making a big assumption here — that incense smells good.

    It doesn’t. Call me strange, but I’m one of those people who could do without it. It’s irritating to my eyes and sinuses and clings to fabric worse that tobacco smoke.

    Plus, someone swinging a burning metal ball in a crowded room doesn’t seem to be the brightest thing in the world to me.

  4. Phil Snyder says:

    I have one quibble (and it is a rather “large” quibble – how about that for an Anglican oxymoron?). We are not to be assured “that the early Christians believed as we believe.” We need to strive to assure (not only ourselves, but the Church catholic) that we believe as the early Christians believed. When we strive to assure ourselves that the early church agrees with us, we are starting out with the assumption that WE are the standard – we are the ones who are right and the early church needs to conform to our belief and practice.

    What needs to happen, however, is that we should conform to the early church’s belief and practice.

    This is similar to the difference between reconcililng ourselves to God and being reconciled to God by God’s grace.

    Phil Snyder

  5. Scott Gunn says:

    Phil, thanks for your comment. I’m a little confused. Did you hear someone saying that in this post or in a comment? If you got that impression from me, then I didn’t communicate well. I am right with you that we should conform our liturgy and our doctrine to the early church, recognizing that context matters. (For example, we do not teach that slavery is acceptable any longer.)

    Jim, I’ll write another post on this topic — to address your point. Sorry that it is unpleasant.

    Bryan, thanks for the kind words. This topic is near to my heart.

    Robin, an interesting way to think about this which I had not previously considered. Thanks!

  6. Phil Snyder says:

    Scott – that was from the quote from St. John’s Detroit.

    Yes, context is important. I don’t believe it is wrong to bring in new instruments (such as the pipe organ – grin) because the ancient church did not have them or use them.

    I love incense and bells and all those things that allow us to worship with all five of our senses – sight, sound, smell, touch , taste – indeed with our whole being. Properly done liturgy is a recapitulation of the perichoresis of the Holy Trinity. Each minister plays his or her part in the complex dance that is well done liturgy.

    Phil Snyder

  7. Thanks for posting this. If I could access Facebook before Sunday I’d share this and tweet it. Last night at St. Paul’s Chapel (and on major feasts in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd), I’ve recently found myself instantly calmed not too long after the thurible or brazier is lighted. As soon as it hits my nose I relax, focus, and prepare my heart for worship…starting with taking deep breaths of the delightful scent.

  8. KJ says:

    Thanks, Scott.

    Come Palm Sunday, I will have been in the Land Episcopal for 4 years (confirmed at last year’s Easter Vigil.). Migrating here as an adult has allowed me to experience liturgy and various symbols used in worship with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. When I have encountered something “new” it has never occurred to me to discount it, but I do immediately want to understand it, and am just fine when that “understanding” is but a mystery.

    I serve as an acolyte at our parish, and one thing I have very much appreciated is how each symbol and person involved in the liturgy contributes to a whole that is much greater than the sum of the individual parts. Mystery!