For many Christians, incense is a powerful symbol of prayer and a link between humans and the gods. But what exactly is it, and how has this fragrance been used throughout the centuries?
In this article we will explore the history and use of incense burners. We will start with a metal spherical censer known as a xiangnang or a xiangqiu, which dates from the Tang dynasty.
In ancient pagan religions incense was burned to appease angry gods or drive away harmful demons. But in Christianity the rising smoke is a symbol of prayer to the true God.
The Bible mentions incense 170 times. It was a ritual ingredient in the Tabernacle of Moses to purify and sanctify the space, similar to the way worship is performed in heaven.
The Magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The New Testament teaches that Christians should be willing to give up everything for the sake of their faith, including their lives. During the Roman persecutions, a standard test for Christians was to drop a pinch of incense on a statue of the emperor; refusal would mark you as a Christian.
The use of incense to accompany and symbolize prayer dates back thousands of years. The Old Testament depicts incense use in the tabernacle of Israel, and God gives Moses specific instructions regulating its use (Exodus 30:34).
In the New Testament, the apostle John sees a heavenly liturgy in which 24 elders worship the Lamb, holding harps and gold bowls filled with incense “which are the prayers of holy ones” (5:8).
The exact date when incense became a regular feature of the Church’s liturgy is not clear, although early accounts like the testimony of fifth-century pilgrim Aetheria show that it was used at the vigil office and other services. Today incense is burned during the Eucharist, solemn celebration of the Divine Office, benediction and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, funeral Masses and in some other rites.
While the Old Testament makes few mentions of incense, the New Testament refers to it more frequently. Zechariah was given incense by the angel to prepare for the birth of John the Baptist.
At Mass incense is burned on the altar following the bread and chalice during the consecration of the Eucharist. It is used at funerals both inside the church at the casket and in a cemetery, during the benediction of Holy Communion, at the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday, and during Easter Vigil as five grains are placed into the Paschal Candle.
A server called a thurifer, sometimes assisted by a boat bearer, approaches the person conducting a service with a thurible — a censer with burning coals. The incense, either whole and in the form of pebbly granules or powder, is opened and spooned onto the coals. The thurible is then closed and swung towards what or whom is being incensed: the altar, the Gospel during its proclamation/reading, the crucifix, icons (in Eastern churches), the clergy, the congregation, etc.
Symbolically, the incense used by Christians represents various aspects of their faith. Frankincense, for example, symbolizes the divinity of Jesus Christ while myrrh indicates his sacrificial death. Other scents such as cedar, styrax and copal are also associated with particular elements of the Christian religion.
Jewish tradition of incense use preceded Christianity, and it is detailed in Sacred Scripture. God gave explicit instructions for constructing an altar of incense, which was burned each day in the tabernacle in the wilderness.
Today, when a priest or deacon opens the chain of a thurible and swungs it towards what or who is being incensed, it signifies that the Church’s prayer rises to heaven like the fragrant smoke. Among the objects and people incensed may be the bread and wine offered for the Eucharist, the crucifix or icons (in Eastern churches), the clergy, acolytes and servers, and the Easter candle.
In addition to its use in liturgical services, incense was also used in funerary ceremonies (to suffocate foul odors) and in ecclesial rituals aimed at cleansing or sanctifying objects, spaces or people. These include the incensing of altars and churches, new altars before their first use, the incensing of the Easter candle or the body of a deceased person at a funeral.
In Mandaeism, incense is offered on stands called kinta to establish laufa between humans of Tibil and uthras of the World of Light during rituals including masbuta and masiqta as well as priest initiation ceremonies. It is also burned atop the altar during the Feast of Epiphany to celebrate the visit of the Biblical Magi to Jesus Christ. The rising smoke is a reminder that our prayers ascend to God.