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Prayer Incense

Image of incense rising from a censor

Biblical Usage

Let’s start with this: Did you know that the Bible mentions prayer incense as part of worship over 100 times? Are you aware that the use of prayer incense was ordered by God Himself for the Tabernacle worship under Moses? Recall, this was hundreds of years before its use in the Temple built by Solomon.  Do you ever consider that it was part of Jesus’ own worship when he visited the Temple?

It seems a pity, then, that so many churches have no place for this ancient symbol of prayer. I suspect that is largely because so many churches nowadays think of worship as no more than a praise service.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a service of praise. My point is that there is much more to worship than just praise. In addition, there are – at least – confession, contrition, absolution, intercession, and the Eucharist.

Worship as Foretaste of Heaven

I believe that the church as an institution, as the vestibule to heaven, should be as unlike the rest of everyday life as possible. The church should have its own architecture. Create its own dress. Its own calendar. Compose its own sound. Develop its own vocabulary. And, yes, even its own smell.

Some Examples

incense and icon image

*In the world ofArchitecture, the church can have many styles, but they can still all be cruciform: in the shape of a cross.

*When consideringDress, what has developed over the centuries is robed choirs and clergy, and a clerical collar for the clergy, to set them off from everyday life.

*The LiturgicalCalendar, the traditional Ordo which begins the church year with four Sundays looking forward to Christ’s birth (Christmas). The calendar then follows the rest of his life through the year: his ministry, arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the founding of his Church.

*As to sound, church music has a long and distinguished history that culminates in the chorales of Bach. And hymns by Beethoven, Mendlessohn, Brahms, Handel, and Williams – to name but a few. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that music developed within the four walls of the church.

*And when it comes to language – especially the words that constitute the worship service – there is nothing that matches the dignity and power of the liturgy to be found in The Book of Common Prayer. There is a time for praise, to be sure. But there is also a time for worship to be serious – what the framers of the BCP called “solemnity.”

*Of course, the church smell is the incense – which brings us back to our title. Incense has been part of the worship of God’s people since very ancient times. Prayer incense was used at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1: 9,10).

Prayer Incense in The Apocylypse

And Revelation 8: 3,4 tells us it is part of the worship of God as that is conducted heaven.

Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden        censer; and much incense was given him, so that he might           add it to the prayers of all the saints… and the smoke of the   incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God          out of the angel’s hand.

Artistic depiction of incense rising

What Revelation describes in heaven is no different from what now takes place on earth. As the smoke of incense rises toward the ceiling of the place of worship, it makes visible the prayers of God’s people as they rise to heaven. In addition, incense is also a symbol of our reverence of God. Think of the Christmas carol, We Three Kings. One of its lines goes: “incense owns a Deity nigh,” that is, “incense acknowledges that God is near.”

Conclusion

Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ gave up the use of prayer incense. I see that as a pity. So many of the historic things that can make the church and its worship distinct from everyday life have lost their place. Let us hope and pray that as our sisters and brothers reconsider their forms of worship, they will re-institute the ancient practice of using prayer incense.