Those of you who know my Calvinist inclinations might find this post ironic and funny at the same time. Good Shepherd is the first and only parish I’ve served. When I arrived in the summer of 2002, I stepped into a parish steeped, for most of her 125 year history, in Anglo-Catholicism. Thirty years before my arrival, my predecessor a VTS grad moved the parish in a more “broad” direction theologically but retained the high liturgical tradition. All of this was very strange and difficult for me but to my mind at the time, there were hills worth dying on and liturgy just wasn’t one of them. While I made a few minor changes, I largely concentrated on what I considered the most vital needs…starting up and leading weekly bible studies (there had not been bible studies for decades), bibles in the pews, starting an adult Sunday school to catechize the parish adults who were largely unaware of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith.
Six years later, I am very happy I decided to leave the liturgy alone…in fact, I’ve grown to love it. And, moreover, the bible studies, expository sermons, and adult Sunday school begun my first year, sparked something of a spiritual reformation and renewal that enabled (and continues to enable) Good Shepherd to survive the tumult of 2003 up to the present. In any case, now there is a growing community of college students from Binghamton University’s InterVarsity Fellowship attending Good Shepherd. Most are from evangelical backgrounds and most, who seem to come primarily for the sermons and Sunday school, seem somewhat taken back by the liturgy. Last Sunday, All Saints Sunday, we had incense. There were some freaked out students afterward…so I wrote this brief “apology” or defense of incense, from an evangelical Anglican to evangelical students. I thought some here might find it helpful…
Question and Answer: Why does your church use Incense?
Some college students from church backgrounds somewhat less liturgical than Anglicanism, asked about the use of incense. What is it and why do we use it?
I didn’t really have a chance to answer in a substantive way since the question was asked yesterday in the greeting line after the service. I managed to mention one of the characteristics of Anglicanism that sets the Anglican expression of Christianity apart from many other protestant expressions, namely that while we embrace the essential biblical truths recovered during the Reformation…
1. Sola Scriptura—the bible is the sole infallible source of revelation, the primary authority in the church by which all doctrine and discipline must be tested and measured.
2. Sola Fide—sinners are justified through the instrument of faith alone
3. Sola Christi—Christ’s righteousness, sacrifice, and mediation is the sole basis or grounding for the justification that is communicated to sinner by faith alone.
4. Sola Gratia—the whole arch of salvation, from beginning to end, is due to and grounded in the free gracious gift of God and for no merit or deserving on our part.
5. Soli Deo Gloria—God’s purpose in Creation, Judgment and Redemption is ultimately his own glory.
...we like to think we’ve not thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
We (at least evangelical Anglicans) stand on the above truths together with orthodox Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists and other evangelical denominations and non-denominational churches. And yet, Anglicans believe it is important to maintain those worship practices of the ancient Church that can be traced back to the very first centuries after the Ascension of Jesus Christ and that do not contradict the Biblical witness.
Why, Anglicans ask, should we surrender the riches and beauty of ancient Christian worship that conforms in every way with scripture?
God is the author of beauty. Anglican worship seeks to employ all the aspects of God’s creation in worship…to reflect God’s created beauty back to him. God’s created beauty comes to us through sight, smell, taste, and touch. And all of these senses are employed in Anglican worship. Incense, music, bells, color, candles…all of these are used to glorify God at Good Shepherd just as they have been used for 2000 years in the Church throughout the world.
According to the witness of the Old Testament, the use of these elements of worship go back to the very establishment of the holy Tabernacle during the exodus. God gave Moses very specific instructions for the construction of his Tabernacle and these included carefully detailed instructions to produce a place of aesthetic beauty.
“The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me. And this is the contribution that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, goatskins, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.” (Exodus 23:1-6)
Notice God’s concern for beauty…the scarlet, blue and purple yarn, the fine linen, the fragrant oil for incense and anointing, the gold and precious stones…all of these elements used in accordance with God’s command would fill the senses of ancient worshipers with sights and smells that would harness every fiber to the task of glorifying God.
Notice the detailed concern God took in the crafting of this piece of tabernacle furniture:
“You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on the other branch—so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups made like almond blossoms, with their calyxes and flowers, and a calyx of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand. Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single piece of hammered work of pure gold. You shall make seven lamps for it. And the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it. Its tongs and their trays shall be of pure gold. It shall be made, with all these utensils, out of a talent of pure gold. And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.”(Exodus 25:31-40)
God does not seem concerned for utilitarian functionality. He doesn’t simply want a lampstand. He wants a beautiful lampstand. Why?...because God is beautiful, he created beauty and beauty brings him glory.
These are simply examples but if you take the time to read through the instructions for the construction of the tabernacle found in Exodus 25-29 (and elsewhere) you will find the divine concern for beauty shot through the whole.
If this is so—if God created beauty and is glorified by the use of the beauty he created—and since there is nothing in scripture to oppose it, shouldn’t the church seek to bring beauty into her weekly sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving?
What I have said so far applies to Anglican worship in general—not incense in particular. If you are specifically wondering about the uses of incense in scripture, follow this link where you will find some of the primary scriptural references to incense. You will find in perusing these texts that incense in itself is a neutral element. When used to worship God, in keeping with his instructions to Moses, it is good and pleasing to the Lord. But it can, like anything else, be turned to idolatry.
Here are a few of my favorite texts:
And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations. (Exodus 30:7-8)
For 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 unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 1:11)
“When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 3 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.” (Revelation 8:1-4)
I understand that there are many who find the use of incense foreign and strange, but I think a thorough and comprehensive study of scripture will show that it has always been used in the right and proper worship of the Lord both in the Old Testament and in the New…both on earth and, according to Revelation, in Heaven. Incense draws the senses heavenward, brings to mind the prayers of God’s people ascending to his throne, and represents the unified universal Church glorifying the God of Creation and Redemption.
The question, then, is not “Why do we use incense?” but it is rather, why doesn’t everyone use incense?