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Incense In The Church

     Incense has been used in the worship of the true God for 34 centuries. Its first recorded use in Scripture is in Exodus 25:6 in connection with the construction of the tabernacle. It is still used today by the great majority of Christians but was largely excluded by Protestants 500 years ago as part of their knee-jerk reaction to all things Roman Catholic. It is time for Christians to put those historical arguments behind them, and to restore this wonderful practice of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

     Incense symbolizes several things in Christian worship.

     First the prayers that God’s people raise to him. In Psalm 141:2 we read, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” And in Revelation 5:8 “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.” Thus the rising smoke is a visual and olfactory confirmation of our prayers.

     Moreover in Ephesians 5:2 the Lord’s death for our salvation is called a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” And so incense proclaims the death of Christ and the Father’s acceptance of it as the propitiation for the sins of the world. As religious imagery preaches a visual sermon, even so incense constitutes an aromatic sermon.

     The smoke also bespeaks the mysterious but real presence of God among us as in Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple where we read, “4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.” (Is. 6:4)

     Also remember that Christian worship is always incarnational, that is fleshy and earthy. It is perceivable not just by the mind, but by all five senses: and participated in by them as well. In Lutheran worship 4 of the 5 senses are involved. Incense completes the course.

     Granted incense is not part of Lutheran piety at this time but that doesn’t mean it can’t ever be. The old objection “it’s too catholic” is a logical fallacy, an abusive argument, (if the catholics do it must be wrong and so we won’t do it).

May God help us overcome ancient prejudices and rejoice in the sweet-smelling savor of Christ with all of our senses.

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