Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Briefly: Incense and Worship

I remember when I first realized that Roman Catholics burned incense in church. I had been in Catholic parishes before, but never during worship. I was impressed by how holy they looked and how good they smelled...but never knew why their churches smelled so much better than Lutheran churches.

When I finally figured out why--in high school--I was shocked. All I could think of was passages such as "Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places (1 Kings 3:3);" or, "A people that provoketh me to anger continually to my face; that sacrificeth in gardens, and burneth incense upon altars of brick (Isaiah 65:3 KJV). Burning incense was what the wicked do in Scripture...or what pot-heads and hippies did--or so I thought.

But as with many things, the difference between the way of the Holy Trinity and the way of idolaters is more defined by what is in your heart than mere outward action. What matters is whom you burn incense to, and for what purpose. In fact, God commanded incense in the Law of Moses:

And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on [the Altar of Incense]. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, 8 and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations. (Exo. 30:7-8).
More instructions follow. And the Old Tesament is full of references to the Altar of Incense and its use. In the New Testament, the references are few, but Revelation says, "And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8)

Incense has been a part of Christian worship as far back as anyone can guess. It makes sense, considering that Christian worship was always practiced with an eye to Temple and Synagogue worship--sometimes rejecting elements, sometimes re-fashioning it Chrsitian-style, sometimes copying elements.

The use of incense is not somehow un-Lutheran either. Frankly I'm not sure when or why it ceased to be of regular use in Lutheran parishes. At the seminary incense was used, albeit infrequently. Honestly I've never seen it in use in an actual parish, though. I'd imagine that the congregations which use it must be quite exceptional, as most Lutherans would oppose it on some instinctual level.

Tomorrow: a clip from a secular report about the effects of incense on the body.


  1. -C said...

    "Honestly I've never seen it in use in an actual parish, though. I'd imagine that the congregations which use it must be quite exceptional, as most Lutherans would oppose it on some instinctual level."

    Actually, the Lutheran parish for which I work - not LCMS tho - uses it regularly, at every feast and every Sunday in festival seasons.

    Those Lutheran congregations are hard to find, especially in these parts, but they are out there.

    Hoping you are having a restful time away.

  2. Paul McCain said...

    I've always thought it is a beautiful addition to the orders or prayer, particularly Evening Prayer.

    Not so sure about "smoking" the altar and such though.

    And, of course, if you really want to do it up right....

  3. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    Why did it fall out of usage? Two major causes.

    1 - That boat sank.
    2 - When we got here to the US, people were strongly anti-Roman Catholic, so after a generation or two things that looked "Catholic" slid away.

    Simple as that. Straightforward history.

  4. Anonymous said...

    Regarding the absence of incense from Lutheran services, I can only believe that the cause is two-fold. One, Romaphobia. Two, trying to look more hip, since guitars, drums and incense just clash, so of course, throw out the old. As a former lcms, and now Eastern Orthodox, I must say that I never knew how physical worship of our God was until I started going the vespers and divine liturgy. Not trying to convert anyone, just calling you back to your own rich heritage.

    God bless!


  5. Past Elder said...

    From the perspective of a thurible stoking pre-conciliar RC altar boy:

    Pastor Brown is right on -- ever since Lutherans hit these shores, the pressure has been on to conform to the then current general face of American Protestantism. Lately it's over remaking ourselves into something like the mega-church "evangelicals", and the loss of incense, the Apocrypha mentioned in an earlier post, the Sign of the Cross, etc are earlier casualties from the same efforts afoot these days to dump what's left. Funny to have come here to escape a government enforced unionism only to effect it ourselves!

    Meanwhile, what's really "too Catholic" goes unchallenged -- adopting the revisionist 1960s Roman liturgy, calendar and lectionary on an equal basis with the historic one we set out to zealously guard and defend!

  6. Rachel said...

    I hate to suggest a boring hypothesis, but I suspect that parishioners might have complained of allergies and such. I'm betting they would now, if you tried to revive the practice.