What is Incense?

Incense is made from various aromatic resins and gums taken from trees and other plants. When burned it gives off scented smoke. In church it is normally burned in a CENSER or THURIBLE. Because it is difficult to burn on its own, and to create the maximum amount of smoke, it is burned along with charcoal.




Which Churches Use Incense?

Most of Christianity use, or have used, incense in worship. All the Eastern Orthodox Churches burn incense at most of their services, or liturgies. In the 'west' the Roman Catholic Church burns incense at many points of its services. The Church of England used incense throughout its history, until the mid 1600's, when it fell into disuse generally. But even then, it continued to be used in worship in isolated churches such as York Minster, and since the mid 19th century its use spread and increased. Nowadays many churches, and particularly Anglican Catholic churches, are rediscovering the benefits to be gained from burning incense as part of their worship.

Why Burn Incense?

Incense and the Liturgy

LITURGY is the formal public worship of the Church, its work. The Liturgy of the Church is made up of the liturgy of each individual Christian, and should be the best that we can possibly offer to God.

Christian worship erupts out of our love of God and our desire to express that love. As such we should worship Him 'with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength.' Good liturgy is designed to stimulate just such a response in us, by exciting the senses and feeding our imagination.

One of the elements of good liturgy is, for example, the use of colorful vestments, processions and the like. Singing and chanting is another important element of liturgy, stimulating as it does the sense of hearing. The use of incense enables even fuller participation in the liturgy by stimulating the sense of smell. It also provides color, movement and sound as the thurible is swung and its chain 'clinks' and 'tinkles.'

Incense as Symbol


Symbols help to point our minds in the direction of invisible realities, and speak to us in a language often richer than words alone. As a symbol, incense is exceptionally rich in associations. Of its many possible associations, two are particularly worthy of mention here.

  1. 1. In Matt 2:11 we read of the Magi bringing Frankincense (a particular type of incense) as a gift to the Christ child. In the words of the well loved Christmas carol "Incense owns a Deity nigh," which means that incense is a sign of our belief in the Real Presence of Christ, the Son of God. What was good enough for the Magi is surely good enough for us!
  2. 2. In the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, the burning of incense appears to be an important part of the worship in heaven. In Rev.5:8 we read of "golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the Saints." While this book is symbolic, and was never intended to be taken as literally accurate, many commentators believe that the writer of the book was strongly influenced by the worship, or liturgy, of his own church. When we burn incense we remind ourselves that our prayers, like incense, ascent to the throne of God and mingle with the prayers of the Saints in heaven.


The Offering of Incense

At the heart of worship in the Temple at Jerusalem was sacrifice. The sacrificial offeringwas usually a living thing such as a lamb or bird, but the fruits of the earth were also offered, including incense. In the Temple there was even an altar specially set aside for the burning of incense.

With the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., the sacrificial worship of the Old Testament came to an end. The necessity for much of it had already been brought to an end several years before by the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Our human need to offer thanksgiving and sacrifice remain to God remains, however.

In our daily lives, Christians have the opportunity to give the best of themselves back to God in service of each other. In our worship we have the opportunity to offer tokens which represent ourselves. Incense is a token of the best we have to offer. In 2 Cor.2:15 we read, "We are indeed the incense offered by Christ to God both for those who are on the way to salvation, and for those who are on the way to perdition. To the later it is a deadly fume that kills; to the former a vital fragrance that brings life."

In the Mass we join our offering with that of Christ Himself on the cross, as at the hands of the priest. He offers Himself to the Father on our behalf. The burning of the incense in the Mass reminds us that Christ's sacrifice is real, and just as effective for us who are alive today as it was when He died on the Cross.

When we burn incense

The most natural and appropriate time to burn incense is when the Lord comes among us in Person in the Eucharist. In the same way, if you are fortunate enough to attend a church in which the service of Benediction* is available, you will find incense burned then.

Incense is traditionally burned at particular points during Divine Service, notably during the Te Deum and Benedictus at solemn celebrations of Morning Prayer, and during the Magnificat at Solemn Evensong. It is also occasionally used at other times, such as at funerals, and when objects and places are blessed.

*BENEDICTION is a particularly beautiful and moving service in which Our Lord is worshiped, present in person in the Blessed Sacrament, and in which His blessing is sought.

St. Paul's Church, Grand Rapids, MI

What the Bible Has To Say

Psalm 140:1-2 "I have cried to Thee, O Lord, hear me: hearken to my voice, when I cry to Thee. Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight; the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice."

The "sweet savour" of incense was used in Old Testament liturgy as far back as the time of Moses as an offering to God:

Exodus 30:34-37
And the Lord said to Moses: Take unto thee spices, stacte, and onycha, galbanum of sweet savour, and the clearest frankincense, all shall be of equal weight. And thou shalt make incense compounded by the work of the perfumer, well tempered together, and pure, and most worthy of sanctification. And when thou hast beaten all into very small powder, thou shalt set of it before the tabernacle of the testimony, in the place where I will appear to thee. Most holy shall this incense be unto you. You shall not make such a composition for your own uses, because it is holy to the Lord.

Malachias 1:11 
For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts.

Matthew 2:11
And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him: and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Mark 15:22-23 
And they bring him into the place called Golgotha, which being interpreted is, The place of Calvary. And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh; but he took it not. 

John 19:39-40 
And Nicodemus also came, (he who at the first came to Jesus by night,) bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. They took therefore the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths, with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.

... and its continued use was predicted, along with the Eucharistic offering, by Malachias:

Frankincense as a sign of His Divinity, and myrrh to portend His Passion and Death, were two of the three gifts the Magi brought to Baby Jesus --

-- and as portended, myrrh, with its analgesic properties, was offered to Him on the Cross and was used, mixed with aloes, to annoint Him after death:


The Church still uses incense, of course, in accordance with prophecy of Malachias, the fragrant smoke symbolizing our prayers rising to Heaven and purifying what it touches. The incense is kept in a covered, often boat-shaped vessel called, unsurprisingly, a "boat," which symbolizes the barque of Peter. The boat, made of bronze or brass and often silver or gold-plated, comes with a spoon for scattering the incense in the bowl-shaped matching burner, called a "thurible" or "censer." The thurible holds burning charcoal (or wood) to ignite the incense and hangs on chains (see angel picture below) so that it may be swung by the priest when censing things (or people) and so it may be easily carried by the thurifer -- the "Altar server" who assists the priest by carrying the incense.