Incense: Theology, History and Modernity

Theological Symbolism of Using Incense

God is unknowable in essence, but cognizable by His actions (energies) to the extent that He Himself sets for us. God often chooses symbolic objects as a way of revealing Himself.

Sometimes God directly endows these objects with special properties, other times, they are made by people at God’s command.

The staff of Moses, for example, belongs to the former type. Before beginning his service, Moses asks the Lord what to do if people do not listen to him. God then makes the staff of Moses turn into a serpent each time he releases it from his hands, “so that they may believe that the Lord … has appeared to you” (Ex. 4:5).

An example of the latter type of objects can also be found in the Book of Exodus. During the creation of the Tabernacle God commands to make a number of unique liturgical items and substances, sanctifying them as holy relics (Ex. 25-31). Among these items we find incense (Ex. 30: 22-38).

Human senses can participate in worship and help us in the perception of God. In the words of St John Damascene, the sense of smell is “that which shows our thought and disposition, directed towards Him through perception of fragrance” (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith).   Fragrances symbolize the various gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Why did the Lord choose to make incense a sacred object? Odors are known to be the fastest means of awakening emotional (as opposed to logical) memory. This can be explained by the location of the limbic system, responsible for our emotions, next to the olfactory brain. In other words, the sense of smell triggers the associated emotions better than other senses.

Church incense is thus called to awaken once experienced reverent feelings in the same way as a familiar smell awakens childhood memories.

Biblical and Ancient Oriental Origins of Incense

The tradition of using incense during prayers and church rites originated in the time of the Old Testament by the order of God.

The thirtieth chapter of the book of Exodus describes the incense that God commanded to use during the consecration of the tabernacle. One of them was the ointment, used for anointing priests during the ordination, as well as some of the accessories in the tabernacle. They also included a fragrant substance used for smoking on sacrificial altars.

The composition of these incense was determined by God himself. Common people were forbidden to make and use them for personal purposes (Exodus 30: 33,38).

In biblical times, some incense and spices were worth their weight in gold and were even presented as gifts to kings. Among the gifts brought by the magi to Jesus Christ were incense and myrrh (Matt. 2: 1, 2, 11).

Myrrh. Order here

The most famous biblical incense is hyssop, saffron, aloe, cinnamon, frankincense, and myrrh. Spices such as cumin, mint and dill are also mentioned.

Incense and spice caravans regularly travelled about 1,800 km across the Arabian Peninsula (Job 6:19). The Bible speaks of a caravan with Ishmaelite merchants carrying from Gilead to Egypt “frankincense, balm, and resin” (Genesis 37:25).

Rich people used scented powders to odorize their bodies, clothing, beds, and homes. (Esther 2:12; Prov. 7:17; Song 3: 6, 7; 4:13, 14). Lazarus’ sister Mary poured “costly perfume made of pure nard” on the Savior’s hair and legs. The cost of a small jug of “pure nard” could be as high as a year’s earnings (Mark 14: 3-5; John 12: 3-5).

The Use of Incense in the Christian Church

The church continues to follow God’s command, described in the Exodus, and uses incense during worship. For the most part, the way of using incense has remained unchanged. The Orthodox churches use them in the same way as in antiquity.

The following incense is used:

– incense – aromatic wood resin, used mainly for burning in liturgical ceremonies. “We offer to Thee, Christ our God, this incense as a spiritual fragrance; receive it, we pray, to Thy heavenly altar and send down to us, in return, the grace of Thy Holy Spirit” – says the prayer read by the priest each time before burning incense in church.

Byzantine frankincense. Order here

– myrrh – aromatic oil used in the sacrament of anointing, as well as consecrating the church and the antimins. It consists of fifty components and is manufactured by the highest church hierarchy;

– rose oil mixed with wine – used in the consecration of the altar.

– wax candles – are made mainly from beeswax and exude a faint smell of honey;

Wax candles. Order here

– wax mixed with incense – wax mastic – used in the consecration of the altar (to fill the recesses in the altar top, produced by nails), as well as for placing relics in reliquaries and icon relic-holders.

Liturgical instructions prescribe to smear the Holy Shroud with fragrance before taking it out on Great and Holy Friday. Rose oil or other aromas are added to the water, poured on the Cross on the Feast of the Exaltation. The Cross itself is also traditionally smeared with incense and decorated with fresh flowers.

– unregulated aromas – for example, hyssop instead of sprinkler, smells of fresh flowers, herbs and branches. Incense can also be added to the oil used for anointing the congregation during the all-night vigil.

Orthodox worship involves all human senses, sanctifying and dignifying them. We see symbolic rituals, hear prayers and chants, partake of the Eucharist (and/or prosphora, artos, wine), feel the aromas of incense and venerate the cross, the icons and other relics. All these elements are inextricably linked with one another.

The fragrance of incense permeates everything in the church, including the walls, the sacred objects and the robes of priests. In a manner of speaking, the fragrance is also absorbed into singing and prayer. This serves as a symbol of the omnipresence of God, Who is present with His energies in every aspect of the natural order of things, in all ways, at any time and in any place.

About the author

John Malov,
Reader, theologian, member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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