This past Sunday, according to the liturgical calendar, was Trinity Sunday, which is a special day with a focus on the Trinity. It is one of several special feast days such as Pentacost, Palm Sunday, Easter, or Christmas, and in the Episcopal Church parish I attend, inevitably means incense will be used.
I love when incense is used in the service, I suspect due to its symbolism and the mystique it carries. Incense has been used within Christianity since antiquity and was inspired by its use within ancient Judaism, where it was used in the temple to represent the prayers of the people ascending to God.
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you…
Incense was also burned on the Day of Atonement. Once per year the high priest of Israel would take a censer of hot coals from the sacrificial altar, along with two handfuls of incense (consisting of five spices), and pass through the veil separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. Within that room the priest would place the incense upon the hot coals, filling the room with sweet smoke.
He shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of crushed sweet incense, and he shall bring it inside the curtain and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the covenant, or he will die.
Incense was also burned in communities outside of Israel, and the burning of incense has a long history of association with the presence of aristocracy and other important people. From what I have read, incense initially came to be associated with the arrival of important guests as a means to cover up any unwanted smells that resulted from cooking or hard labor outdoors. However, because it was expensive it was saved for special occasions and/or special guests. Over time, incense was used in religious ceremonies to represent the presence of one’s god (i.e.., the presence of a special guest) and was used to purify the temple or holy space in anticipation of the god’s visit.
Within Christianity incense is typically used by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglicans, and high-church Lutherans, and primarily on special feast days, as I mentioned earlier. When it is used, the incense is carried in a thurible, similar to the picture at the beginning of this post. The spices are placed within the thurible, along with a coal or some other means of heat, and the thurible is swung back and forth on the end of a long chain. The person doing this is usually the priest or someone assigned the duty, called a thurifer.
The incense is used at important points within the service. The thurifer swings the thurible at the front of the procession of the cross and, once at the altar/table used for communion, swings, or “censes”, the altar/table to purify it for the coming of God during communion. The priest is then “censed” by the thurifer because the priest will be the agent through whom God will act throughout the service.
At the offertory (i.e., when the bread and wine are offered by the congregation for use in the holy communion), the bread and wine are “censed” because they will become the presence of God.
And finally, the congregation is “censed” in order to be purified prior to receiving communion, for through that sacrament God will visit them. This is my favorite part of the service on such days, for in my parish, the thurifer is frequently one of the congregants – a fifteen-year old young woman. I want you to imagine it: she carries the thurible at the head of the procession into the sanctuary. Prior to the offertory she approaches the priest and, if present, the bishop as well. They both bow to one another and she “censes” them. She then walks forward and 150-200 people stand as she stands before the congregation. She bows to the congregation and the congregation bows to her. She then “censes” the congregation by swinging the thurible back and forth several times. Finally, both she and the congregation give one last bow, and the service continues.
I get emotional when I watch this unfold. I love the symbolism as the incense represents both the prayers of the people and the purifying presence of the Holy Spirit preparing us for Holy Communion. The fact that a fifteen-year old young woman performs the ritual, standing before the entire congregation as a representative of God to purify his people, is overwhelming. It moves me to tears every time.
From the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same, my Name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered in my name, and a pure offering; for my name shall be great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of Hosts.