The real reason we burn incense: It isn’t merely symbolic.

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Why do we sing when we worship God?

 

Surely it is easier to just say the words rather than trying to move our voices to some melody, and yet singing has almost always been an important way in which God’s people have demonstrated their love for him. In scripture we find the “Song of Moses,” the “Song of Miriam,” the “Song of Hannah,” the “Song of Solomon,” and of course the Psalms themselves, all poetry that we believe was originally sung to God, just like our hymns or praise songs are sung today. Why do we sing? We sing because we believe that it gives glory and honor and praise to God in ways that surpass the spoken word. One could probably make the argument that music was invented for worship, and there aren’t many religious traditions that don’t include it in some form. But of course, music and song are not the only ancient ways in which we worship God; there is another way that is equally, if not more, ancient: incense.

 

Whenever I hear a priest explain the use of incense in Catholic worship I invariably hear one of the following arguments or statements:

 

Incense symbolizes our prayers rising to heaven

Incense is fragrant and engages our sense of smell in worship

Incense was used in the ancient times to mask bad odors

 

While all of these arguments have some truth to them (and I must admit I have used them myself at times), they all fall short of identifying the primary, and most important, reason that incense is used in worship: We offer incense to glorify God.

 

Incense is quite simply burned as an offering to God. The rising smoke of the incense fills the air with something beautiful in the same way that our voices fill the air when we sing. They are both ways in which God’s faithful people have sought to honor and worship their creator from the earliest biblical times. We don’t talk about singing as if it were symbolic of worship; it is worship. Music in church is not there to entertain the congregation; it is there to glorify God. We need to start thinking of incense in the same way.

 

From the Book of Exodus, wherein Aaron is instructed to build an altar of incense in front of the ark of the covenant (Exodus 30: 1-9), to the Book of Revelation, where an angel stands before the throne of God, offering God “a great quantity of incense” along with the prayers of all the saints (Revelation 8:3), incense is routinely offered in the worship of God. In Psalm 141, the psalmist writes:

 

I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;

Give ear to my voice when I call to you.

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,

and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.

 

The psalmist is assuming that the burning incense and the evening sacrifice are acceptable to God, and he is praying that his prayers, however feeble our faulty they may be, may be as acceptable. Nowhere does the psalmist imply that the incense is merely symbolic of true worship; he actually implores God that his prayers may be as truly worshipful as offering incense.

 

In fact, the one time in which scripture comes down very hard on the burning of incense is when it is treated as just a symbol. The prophet Isaiah famously describes offerings as “futile” and incense as an “abomination” when he is excoriating Israel for divorcing the external forms of worship from true conversion of the heart (Isaiah 1:13). Worship is not meant to be an empty symbol or ritual, but an outpouring of the internal love we have for God, an outpouring which should also manifest itself in a desire to do good and resist evil. The problem here is not the incense or the offerings; the problem is when our rituals become disconnected from our devotion.

 

I know plenty of churches that value music in worship, but not incense. I cannot think of any churches that value incense, but not music. I do not think it is any accident that the churches that use incense most liberally are also the churches most inclined to sing large portions of the service. Perhaps we appreciate (even if only subconsciously) that both the smoke and the song are solemn offerings to God. They are lifted into the air, not primarily for our entertainment, but as an offering for the worship and glorification of the Almighty.

 

Sure, all sorts of symbols abound in our worship, and music and incense can (hopefully) be pleasing to the ear or the nose, but please, let’s stop telling people that that is why we are using them. Our primary purpose should always be the praise and adoration of God. Everything else is just gravy.