John Gayford on the use of incense in church


The statement the use of incense has been discussed in the Anglican Church with considerably more fervour than knowledge is as true today as it was over 100 years ago. In current liturgical practice the use of incense is a powerful symbol with perfumed plumes of prayer ascending to God and lingering around those who worship. As the Psalmist says Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting of my hands as the evening sacrifice. In modern liturgy incense, after being placed on the red-hot charcoal, is seen as the fire of divine love raising in prayer to Almighty God. Blessing of the incense may now be in silence by the priest simply making the sign of the cross. In former times, as in the Extraordinary Rite, the intercession of the Archangel Michael is invoked at the blessing as God’s mercy is implored; and as the censer is handed back to the deacon the words are said May the Lord kindle in us the fire of his love and the flame of everlasting charity.

By the time incense is liturgically offered in our churches it has travelled a long way both historically and geographically. The word incense comes from the Latin incendere (to burn). In Greek it is thymiama and in Hebrew qtet. The main ingredient is frankincense (olibanum) a resin that comes from Southern Arabia but many other often secret ingredients have been added. Incense seems at some time to have been used by most religions of the world.

Incense was used in the ancient world for many purposes, some religious some not. There is also evidence of its use as a perfume or cosmetic. Sacrifice was made to a god or gods, as was the common practice in many of Israel’s surrounding cultures. An offering was made for the deceased and to drive away evil spirits. Incense was used to honour a person or as an accompaniment to a festival banquet but also created a worshipful atmosphere. Jeremiah refers to its healing properties and as a means of purification, and the Song of Songs (5:5) refers to its seductive properties. We need to remember incense has been used in magic and in the evil arts. As such it was abhorrent to Christians at first.

It was in Egypt in the third millennium B.C. that incense became an indispensable part of the ritual of embalming for burial of dead kings. Texts from the Pyramids tell of its elaborate use for the preparation of the king for entrance into eternal life. The smoke of the incense was seen as it ascended making a stairway into the heavens. It is not surprising that many people wanted to imitate this. Incense changed the corrupt smell of a decaying human body into a divine body of everlasting life and endurance. Incense was lavishly used in ancient Egyptian temple worship offered to the gods, even believing that the smell attracted the gods and made them favourable to the worshippers. 

In the Old Testament a distinction is made between the lawful and unlawful use of incense. The latter coming from a pagan cult that had been imported into Israel, with archaeological evidence to support this. Lawful offering of incense had to be of a specific formula which is given in Exodus 30: 34 and 35. This formula has come under much scrutiny with claims that in reality it was a secret made up of 11 spices known only to a family of Jewish priests; that secret has now been lost to us. There was a golden censer in front of the holy of holies where Moses had instructed Aaron to burn incense twice a day in the Tent of the Meeting. This was later transferred to the Temple where only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies and offer incense for the atonement of sins on the Day of Atonement.  The way in which this incense is to be offered is specified in Leviticus 16:12 and 13.  The vision of the call of Isaiah (6:1-7) shows a temple filled with smoke. In the Book of Malachi (1:11) we read: From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations says the Lord of hosts.

Even in Old Testament times the various substances used for incense had to be imported from far and wide (much as it is today). There was not one single route, some came by land through the desert splitting into different ways and others by sea. Southern Arabia produced both frankincense and myrrh and was the major exporter but others came from China and India.

There are fewer references to incense in the New Testament. Zechariah the father of St. John the Baptist was a Jewish priest and in St. Luke 1:8-13 we hear that it was his turn offer incense in the Temple. St. Matthew (2:11) records that frankincense was brought to the infant Jesus by one of the Magi. St. Mark and St. Luke tell us of the anointing of the body of Jesus with a large amount of myrrh and aloes, St. Paul describes the sacrifice of Our Blessed Lord as a fragrant odour. We are also told of people anointing themselves to cure disease. In Revelations incense is used to describe the prayers of believers and in 5:8 the 24 elders have golden bowls full of incense made up of the prayers of the saints. 

In the first three centuries of the Christian era there is no mention of the use of incense in church ceremonies. Its use could be seen as pagan but this view started to modify in the fourth century. 

The use of incense came first in the Eastern Coptic and Syrian Churches in the 4th century. By the 5 – 6th century use spread to the Antiochene churches with censing taking place at various points before and during the Eucharistic liturgy. Incense is used in all the orthodox liturgies, in Divine Liturgy there is censing of the altar, the holy gifts, the Book of Gospel, icons and the people. In the Greek Church it became the custom to have 12 bells attached to the chains of the thurible symbolic of the twelve apostles making a joyful sound, while in the Syrian Church there are nine bells symbolic of the nine orders of angels. In Lent this was replaced by the Katzio (a plain thurible with no bells). The use of incense spread slowly to western churches from the east. We hear little of it before the 9th century and it took time for it to spread through parts of the Mass. It was first used in processions which could include the entry and Gospel processions, but not until the 13th century was it used at both the Elevation of the Host and of the Chalice.

The reformation brought an end to the use of incense in churches of the reformed tradition. In the short the reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558) Catholic practices were restored to England. There are accounts of incense being occasionally used in Anglican churches in the 17th century.  Bishop Lancelot Andrew (1555-1626) using it in his private chapel and even reports that it was used in the domestic chapel of Queen Elizabeth I but was probably only to produce a pleasing odour. Incense was totally banned in the 18th century by Puritans. It was not until the 19th century under Tractarian influence that again it was used in some Anglo-Catholic churches: but not without vocal and even violent protest. Surprisingly Dr. Orchard at the beginning of the 20th century introduced Catholic ritual at the Kings Weigh Congregational Church for a short time. We obviously live in more tolerant times now when the United Methodist Church allows the use of incense in an evening prayer and praise service. 

The use of incense in worship is mainly confined to churches of a catholic disposition but even so it is not an essential element of liturgy. The catholic revival within the Anglican Church saw the reintroduction of incense but not without controversy, some of which remains. The introduction of The English Missal gives evidence of how incense could be used in Eucharistic worship in the Anglican Church. In modern Catholic liturgy incense can be used at any Mass (even if only in a bowl) thus not confined to a solemn celebration. Processions (including the entry procession at Mass) are dignified by the thurifer leading and swinging the censer. At the beginning of a Solemn Mass the celebrant censes the altar and may even be censed himself. Incense is blessed and used again to venerate the Book of Gospels. At the offertory the altar is again censed after the preparation of the gifts to honour the gifts of bread and wine. This is followed by censing of the ministers and people. In the Eucharistic Prayer elevation of the Host and Chalice can be accompanied by the use of incense. Incense has a special place in benediction of the Blessed Sacrament but since the Blessed Sacrament is already sanctified, incense does not need to be blessed for this purpose.  In solemn Vespers during singing of the Magnificat, when the altar and all those present are censed. Less common is incense used at Lauds but it would seem appropriate on the Feast of St. John the Baptist when the canticle of his father Zechariah is sung. At special rejoicing a Solemn Te Deum is sung with incense in attendance. Finally at a funeral requiem  not only is incense used as at Mass but also at the entry of the coffin into the church which it is censed and sprinkling with holy water, possibly with the singing of the Subvenite Sancti Dei  (Come to his/her assistance saints of God). At the end of the requiem there is the absolution of the dead where once more the coffin is censed before the singing of In paradisum deducant te angeli (may the Angels lead you into paradise) as it leaves the church.

Incense is used at the Easter Vigil Lucernarium in preparing and lighting of the Paschal Candle. Five grains of incense (or representations of the same) can be inserted into the candle in a prescribed way in the shape of a cross with the symbols Alpha and Omega and the date. The candle is led into a dark church carried by a minister but preceded by a thurifer burning incense. The procession halts three times as personal candles are lit. The clouds of incense swirling round the candle in a darkened church has a dramatic effect of announcing the risen Christ coming into our darkened world.

To enter a church where there is still the lingering smell of incense can put the senses in tune with the prayer and devotion that has taken place. Incense can contribute to the sense of mystery, symbolic of prayer rising before God.


Suggested Further Reading:-

Atchley, E.G.C.F. A History of Incense in Divine Worship. Alcuin Club Collection Number13. London 1909.

Fragomeni, R. the Use of Incense in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship edited by Fink, P.E. A Michael Glazier Book. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville Minnesota. 1990.

Nielsen, K. Incense in The Anchor Yale Biblical Dictionary (Volume 3) edited by Freedman, D. N. The Anchor Yale Bible London. 2009.


Father John Gayford is a priest of the Society of the Holy Cross.