Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Psalm 141:2
The word “incense” comes from the Latin incendere, which means “to burn.” Incense is composed of aromatic plant materials, often combined with essential oils, all of which releases fragrant smoke when burned. In the ancient world, incense was highly prized, with the trading of incense and spices providing economic basis for the Middle Eastern Incense Route, which flourished from the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD.
The use of incense in worship predates Christianity by thousands of years, emerging in the East with the burning of cassia and sandalwood and later being adopted in the West. The Divine Liturgies of Saint James and Saint Mark, dating from the 5th century, both mention the use of incense.
Incense Use in the Bible
Incense is mentioned in the Bible 170 times in both the Old and New Testaments.
In the Old Testament, God commanded Moses to make an Altar of Incense:
“And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it...And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” Exodus 30:1, 7-8
God further commanded Moses on the composition of the incense:
“And the Lord said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy: And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy. And as for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the Lord.” Exodus 30:34-37
These passages show incense in use as part of a ritual cleansing and purification of the sacred space of the Tabernacle, readying it for God’s presence, a practice that continued in Jewish worship and was later adopted by the early Christian church as our rituals developed.
The word of the Lord to the prophet Malachai says:
“For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts.” Malachi 1:11
In the New Testament, the most notable mention of incense is frankincense being offered as a gift of the Magi to the newborn Christ, symbolizing his role as priest, prophet, and king.
The Revelation to St. John also describes the use of incense at the heavenly throne of God:
“And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth. And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne. And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.” Revelation 5:6-8
And later, offered by the hand of an angel:
“And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand.” Revelation 8:3-4
Why We Use Incense
Incense is used to venerate, bless, and sanctify. Incense raises our prayers to heaven, allows us to enter into the presence of God, and provides a visual reminder of the link between the temporal and the mystical, between Heaven above and the Earth below. In very real terms, incense is a burnt offering of the precious resources of Creation - spices and frankincense - to the glory of God. Symbolically, incense smoke purifies all that it touches.
At the beginning of the Mass, the priest censes the altar to prepare for the coming of God. The priest is also incensed by the deacon as the instrument through which God acts in the liturgy. The bread and wine are censed at the offertory to purify them to receive the presence of Christ. Further, the congregation is censed to honor them as the mystical body of Christ, and also to purify them to receive the Holy Sacrament of God.
“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 believe 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.’” - Fr. Homer F. Rogers, Rector, St. Francis Episcopal Church, Dallas, Texas - 1956 - 1980
When We Use Incense
St. Peter’s uses incense on all of the principal feasts of the church year, as well as feasts of Our Lord, vigils, and solemnities. These include:
In addition, incense is used at all Evensong services as well as at major diocesan events hosted at St. Peter’s Church.
Incense is typically administered at these points within the service of Holy Communion:
Gloria (or Kyrie)
For Evensong, incense is offered only during the Magnificat.
Actual practice may vary from service to service at the celebrant’s discretion.