Wednesday, February 15, 2012


People from non-liturgical traditions often wonder about the use of incense in church. What's it for? What good is it? Isn't it superstitious or something? Or isn't it some Roman Catholic encrustation which we ought to scrub away?

Actually, it's neither superstition nor anything invented by Rome. It's an element of worship mandated, in the Old Testament, by God Himself. And in the New Testament, it is described as part of the ceaseless worship in heaven. We use it for both of those reasons: first, because since God ordained it, incense in its right place with its right meaning must be pleasing to Him; and secondly, because our worship is both a foreshadowing of and a participation in the heavenly worship.

Incense is a token of honor. When the priest waves it at us, that means he is honoring us. And what is the proper response of a Christian when anybody shows him honor? It's humility. So when we are censed, we bow. The bow has nothing to do with "clericalism"; it's rather the opposite. Not that you are honoring the priest (although there's nothing wrong with that either), but he is honoring you. That's why he also censes the icons, to honor them, or more accurately, those whom they depict.

The incense is also a token of blessing. When the priest waves the incense in your direction, he's doing the outward, visible counterpart of what Christ is doing invisibly: blessing you. Again, the appropriate response is to bow. You bow toward the priest, but really to the One ministering alongside him.

Incense, of course, also symbolizes prayer, as in the Psalm which says, "Let my prayer rise as incense before Thee." In Christianity, what we mainly offer God is spiritual sacrifice; namely, our faith, our hope, our love, our selves, our lives. So for us, incense symbolizes all that.

So no, incense is not superstitious, unless perhaps one adds other elements or meanings to it that are. And no, it's not "too Catholic"; it's older than Rome and it's ultimately angelic.


Anonymous said...

Wasn't incense used by Noah after he set up an altar to worship God when he passed through the flood? I don't think God had established a mandate for incense at the time, but if I'm wrong please correct me, as this would mean the mandate was set up later. In addition, this passage on Noah is illustrative of man's free will, of which Noah used his to please God.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Um, actually, no. Noah sacrificed some animals, which made a sweet savour to God. But not incense.

But yes, Noah did use his free will to please God. What an excellent point that is!

Anonymous said...

Ah - thanks for the correction. A precursor of sorts to incense then (and of course Christ)? Since the Eucharist is now the sacrifice possibly...