Why Do We Burn Incense in Church?
Incense has been used in the Catholic liturgy for ages. But doesn’t its use come from pagan origins? Lots of religions in the East seem to do it. What is the significance of incense-burning in the Church nowadays?
When the Flood had subsided, Noah offered burnt offerings on an altar and Yahweh smelt the appeasing fragrance and said to himself: Never again will I curse the earth. (Genesis 8:21).
The flames may not have contained anything to make an appeasing fragrance, but one can see the association between making a smoking sacrifice to God and the confidence that God will find that it smells good to him and consequently finds it pleasing.
There are other similar stories in the history of the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Babylonians, Sumerians and others, mostly in a polytheistic context. Everywhere incense-burning is symbolic of human prayer to honour, placate or petition a divine being.
Moses in Exodus Was the First
Among the Israelites the simple burning of incense without a sacrificial victim came into use when Moses ordered that an altar be built where fragrant incense was to be burnt (Exodus 30:1-8). Aromatic gums, resins and barks were blended to give off an agreeable smell. As a priest, John the Baptist’s father Zechariah was following this practice in the temple, as described in Luke 1:8-11.
Hindus, Taoists and Buddhists have offered incense for centuries, and the ancient Greeks and Romans did so too not only in worship but to drive away evil.
The Early Church Didn’t Use Incense
The early Church did not use incense in worship because of the association with paganism. To force Christians to renounce Christ as God, the Romans often required them to offer incense to a god or to the divine emperor, at the cost of their lives.
Around the 4th century, however, the Church began to adopt burning incense especially in the eucharistic liturgy. Incense was carried in processions and the deacon used it to honour the book of the gospels. Gradually its use extended to the altar and the sanctuary.
Our Prayers Are Going Up to God
Scented smoke going up is not just ordinary smoke. It is reserved to remind us that our prayers are going up to God himself, and to create an atmosphere for us to acknowledge that we are assembled in God’s presence.
Incense burnt in church nowadays is manufactured so as to cause fumes that are easy on the nose, do not sting the eyes and do not create excessive billows of smoke.
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