I have loved the use of incense in worship since my days among the brothers at the Monastery in Durham and Boston; I learned how to “swing the censer” and offer up the sweet smelling odors of burning frankincense through participation in those Monastic services. The unified voices of the congregation, lifted in prayer and praise through chanted psalms and sung hymns, always seems to flow a little more mystically when accompanied by the wafting billows of incense. This is especially true on those high, holy moments in the church’s worship life like Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday when people are especially attuned to things spiritual.
However, among most Protestant Christians the use of incense in public worship is not as common as it is among our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. And, so, it is understandable that people want to know the historical, Biblical, and theological meaning of its use in worship. There are many references in the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) to the use of incense (and, particularly, frankincense) in Jewish worship. In the sanctuary of the Tabernacle, and in the Temple in Jerusalem, an altar was provided for the burning of incense, directions were given for how the incense was to be prepared from frankincense and other gums and resins, and how it was to be offered up in prayer and praise as part of the congregation’s worship. Its use is described in the Psalms and in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Malachi, as well as in the Gospel account in Luke of the vision given to Zechariah, who was a priest “offering incense in the temple of the Lord” when he received the promise from God that a son, who would later become known as John the Baptist, would be given to him and his wife, Elizabeth.
Other references to incense in the New Testament can be found in the book of Revelation as well as in the mention of frankincense as being one of the gifts given to the Baby Jesus by the “wise guys.” While these references, and a few others, indicate to some Scholars that incense was used early-on in the worship life of the Church, it is nevertheless true that there is no direct evidence no clear references by any of the Church Fathers and Mothers that frankincense, or any other form of incense, was used in Christian worship until the early fifth century. We know that it came into use in the Eastern part of the Church at least a half-century before the Western Church adopted it, and that by the later half of the fifth century we know it was in common use during Eucharistic services throughout the Christendom. Among Protestants, the use of incense fell out of favor during the Reformation due to a negative reaction to practices that smacked of “popish sacerdotalism.” Indeed, the reformers were so hostile to its use in public worship that, even to this day, the only Protestant denominations where one will find incense in at least a few very special worship services are the High Church Anglicans, some Lutherans, and a few weird United Methodists.
Theologically the use of incense serves multiple purposes. It can be understood as symbolizing:
- Our collected prayers and praises, rising to God like the smoke from the censer.
- The mystical Real Presence of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
- The Grace of God, which God pours into our souls as incense pours fragrance throughout the Sanctuary.
When offered as a means of grace in worship, incense can serve as a reminder that, even when Christ’s presence is intangible, wispy, and even distant, nevertheless God is with us. Truly, this is the message of Christmas: “Emmanuel … God with us!”
 See, among many others, Exodus 30-31, 35 & 37 and Leviticus 16
 Luke 1:8-11
 Revelation 5:8 and 8:3
 Matthew 2:11
Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Mesquite, Texas, and an Ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity Graduate College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Biblical Studies, Languages, Systematic Theology, Liturgy, and the Sacraments. He has taught New Testament Studies, Biblical Greek, and courses on the Theology of the Sacraments in UM Schools of Mission, Continuing Education Seminars, and in undergraduate courses across the country. As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, both of which are available from Koinonia Press through your local bookstore, on the internet at Amazon.com, and in the Grace Incarnate Store. You are invited to read Dr. Neal's academic papers and theological articles on his website at Writings, and you are encouraged to listen to Dr. Neal's Messages online in Real Player format.
© 2008, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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