A Reason for Incense

NOTE: This is from a bulletin insert first printed in 1995 for the members of Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit.


Incense is used in Christian Churches for three reasons.

First, in the Bible, incense and worship go together. Isaiah and St. John describe the heavenly worship with the angels where the house was filled with [the] smoke of incense (Is 6.4; Rev. 8.3-4; see also Luther's description in hymn #249). Incense reminds us of the prayers of the saints going up to God (Ps 141, Rev 8). But the primary biblical reason for is to remind us of the sacrificial death and the glorious resurrection of our Lord.

Our Lord is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. When sacrifices were made in the Old Testament, incense was used. When our Lord died, no incense was burned but He was wrapped and buried in incense. So the aromatic perfume of incense today reminds us both that our Lord was sacrificed for our benefit and that He is the Resurrection and the Life. St. Paul picks up on this and applies it to us when he says that we are the aroma of Christ to God. In other words, we are God's incense since we have been raised with Christ by the waters of Holy Baptism.

The second reason for using incense is to show honor. In the ancient East and West, incense announced the presence of a god. Since you cannot see God, your nose would remind you of His presence! Adopting this custom, Christian Churches used incense especially at those points where we need to be reminded of our Lord's very real presence-(a) in the Sacrament, (b) in the person of the pastor, (c) in the baptized who dwell in Christ and Christ in them. That is why the elements and altar, the celebrant, and the people are incensed during the Mass. It honors God by reminding us that He is in the midst of us.

The third reason for using incense is beauty which engages the whole person. For not just the mind and heart are consecrated to God's Service, but also the hands, eyes, feet, taste buds, and even the nose! So, just as the beauty of the vestments and flowers capture the eyes and the sounds of the organ delight the ear, the sweet smell of the incense is intended to aid the senses in grasping the greatness of the feast.

Here at Zion, incense is used on particularly festive occasions for all three reasons-beauty, honor, but especially to help us recall that the Mass we celebrate is the Service of our Resurrected Lord whose broken Body and shed Blood causes us to be the aroma of Christ to God.

+ + + On Being Liturgical + + +

© Copyright Rev. Fr. John W. Fenton 1995, 1999

Rev. Fr. John W. Fenton

Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church

4305 N Military

Detroit MI 48210-2451


Voice: (313) 894.7450

FAX: (313) 894.7871

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