Q: What is the history and meaning of the use of incense in the Church?
A: The use of incense has become rare in our churches since the Reformation. This is strange since the use of incense is mentioned frequently in Scripture, was retained by Luther in his "Formula Missae" of 1523, and has a long and venerable tradition in the Church.
In the ancient Jewish temple, an incense offering was burned by the priest every morning and evening at the altar of incense located in front of the veil protecting the holy of holies (Ex. 30: 1-10; Lk. 1 :8-23). Additionally, incense, an expensive gift (Song of Songs 3:6; Phil. 4: 18; Rev. 18: 13) was believed to be pleasing to God and efficacious for the atonement of sins (Lev. 16:12-13; Num. 16:46-48; Dt. 33:10), and so was one of the gifts presented to the Christ child by the Magi (Mt. 2: 11). Its use on Epiphany is especially appropriate. The ascending smoke signified the prayers of the people to God (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; Rev. 8:3-4). The smoke of the incense was also seen in both the Old and New Testaments as a manifestation of God's glory (1 Kg. 8:10-11; Is. 6:6-8; Ezek. 44:4; Rev. 15:8). Zechariah's vision concerning his son (St. John the Baptist) comes at the offering of incense (Lk. 1:8-23).
Incense was not used in the very early Church because of its association with the Roman custom of incense offerings to a pagan deity of the emperor. Later, after the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century, incense began to be carried before the clergy in procession or before the dead. Eventually, it was used at the reading of the Gospel (which symbolized the presence of Christ in His Word), or at the offertory (which symbolized Christ present in His Sacrament).
The use of incense in the Lutheran tradition represents both the prayers of God's people ascending to heaven and the sweet robe of Christ's righteousness covering our sin.
Adapted from About Being Lutheran © Lutheran Liturgical Renewal 1991. Used by permission.