hey guys, i was just wondering, when did incense start being used in the church. i havne’t really found much about that particular topic in the early christian writings. thanks
Burning incense is yet another of the many rich traditions of Jewish worship that made its way into our liturgy, so the roots can be traced back to the tabernacle.
The recipe for liturgical incense was given by God to Moses way back in the Exodus. Incense was burned in the Temple every day at the time of morning and evening prayer.
***The offering of incense was the apex of the daily morning and the evening services. According to the Rabbis, this was the part of the temple service that was most beloved by God. The burning of the incense was symbolic of the prayer of the people rising up to God (Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4). The offering of incense had to take place after the sacrifice, because only after the atonement could communion with God take place. After the offering of incense, the Kohenim (priests) pronounced the Priestly Blessing upon the people.
Jesus is the King of kings. Throughout history, incense was used for royalty. Jesus died at 3:00 PM, the same time the incense was offered in the temple.
There is evidence that it started to be used during the lifetime of the Apostles – the Book of Revelation refers to it frequently. (Actually the three wise men offered frankincense, which is a type of incense, to Jesus in the first few chapters of Matthew, and that is significant as well.) The Catholic Encyclopedia says that the first reference to its use in the Church (after the apostolic period) appears in the fifth century; but I think a case could be made that several earlier Church Fathers make reference to it when they quote Malachi 1:11 in reference to the Eucharist, which happens frequently. So think about that as well.
Very early Christians seem to have regarded the offering of incense as one of the sacrifices of the Old Covenant that became obsolete in the New Covenant. (Epistle of Barnabas, chap. 2; Justin Martyr, First Apology, chap. 12)
They seem to have taken the offering of incense mentioned in Malachi 1:11 symbolically, as referring not to real incense but to the prayers of the saints, citing Revelation 5:8. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 4, chap. 17)
St. Irenaeus does identify the incense in that prophecy as a symbol for prayer, but the symbolic meaning does not exclude a literal meaning. St. Justin Martyr quotes Malachi 1:11 in the Dialog with Trypho chapter 41, and does not say the incense is symbolic; he just says that Christians fulfill this prophecy. In the absence of any evidence that he thought it was merely symbolic, I think it should at least be mentioned in discussing whether the (very) early Church used incense.
I just found a reference to the use of incense in the 300s. It appears in a letter of Hosius, a bishop of a city in Spain, to the emperor Constantius, written in about 353 A.D. It says: Intrude not yourself into Ecclesiastical matters, neither give commands unto us concerning them; but learn them from us. God has put into your hands the kingdom; to us He has entrusted the affairs of His Church; and as he who would steal the empire from you would resist the ordinance of God, so likewise fear on your part lest by taking upon yourself the government of the Church, you become guilty of a great offense. It is written, Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. Neither therefore is it permitted unto us to exercise an earthly rule, nor have you, Sire, any authority to burn incense. These things I write unto you out of a concern for your salvation.
The earliest Christians did not use incense because of its association with emperor worship in ancient Rome during the persecutions. However, once the persecutions ended at the beginning of the 4th century, :rolleyes:the Church began to use incense. There is evidence of the use of incense in Rome during the 4th century and about the same time in the East.
Archpriest John W. Morris
I’ve always assumed it was okay for lay Catholics to burn “incense” along with lighting candles in their home, especially when praying the rosary. We don’t have any incense and I haven’t done that myself. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it offered in a Catholic bookstore either. From the quote above, it appears that burning incense is reserved for the priests. So does that mean we shouldn’t do that in our homes, that burning incense is reserved for liturgical services in the church?
“And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.”
John describes the mass here in the book of revelations. The mention of incense signifies the prayers ofthe faithful which are presented to God by the saints in heaven
Another ancient practice, daily prayers–alluded to in Acts 2:42–would include the morning and evening prayers, still the Hinges of the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayers of the Church. The earliest disciples probably went to the temple when in Jerusalem (Acts 3:1), when the incense was offered. They could well have done the same in their own gatherings in other places. After all, Psalm 141:2, still used as a primary Evening Prayer psalm, speaks of “our prayers rising like incense, our hands like an evening offering.”
As that Psalm is chanted during Vespers the Deacon or if there is no Deacon, the Priest censes the whole Church. This is done during every Vespers service. Eastern Orthodox use incense at almost every service. There is no form of what the Catholics used to call Low Mass in the Byzantine Rite.
We know that the use of incense is an ancient practice because its use became universal very early. All ancient Churches, Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox use incense.
For bit of humor, during the Byzantine Liturgy the Priest holds the veils that are put over the diskos (paten) and chalice after the gifts are prepared before the Liturgy in the smoke of the incense. A Russian Orthodox book that I have describing the ceremonies during the Divine Liturgy states that this is to kill the bugs that might be on the veils.
The quote you’re reading isn’t talking about burning incense as just incense, but about burning incense at Mass as a priest.
It would be like a bishop today telling the President that holding a government office doesn’t mean that you get to run the Church too, or to hear Confession, or to say Mass. Heck, it doesn’t even mean that you can walk into church and grab a thurible, and declare yourself a server.
So why is the writer using “burning incense” as an example?
Because burning a pinch of incense to the Genius of the Emperor was the classic way for Roman pagans to show their loyalty to the Roman Empire – and it was the act of pagan idolatry that Christians died rather than commit.
So the writer is also saying, “If we let you, a Roman emperor, run the Church (instead of letting God run the Church through those He calls to His service), we would be worshipping the Emperor (and the Empire) instead of Jesus Christ.”
Classical and patristic literature is full of allusions like this – they say one thing out in the open, but enrich its meaning by reference and implication.
Incense in a prayerful but non-liturgical context is something that laypeople have always been able to do (if they could afford it), and all sorts of perfumes and incenses were used as part of normal life in the Roman world, by Christian and pagan alike. (Although Christians tried to be less extravagant about using perfumes on themselves, Prudentius records them pouring perfumes on tombstone inscriptions, as well as putting out flowers at tombs to honor the dead.)
It is very common for Eastern Orthodox laity to use incense when they pray at home. There are small hand held censers that Orthodox can buy at most Orthodox book stores long with a small box of incense.
Eastern Orthodox use incense at almost every service, not just during the Divine Liturgy. The only service where incense is not used would be during the 1,3,6, and 9th Hours which correspond to your prime, terce, sext and none. However, we use incense during the Hours of Holy (Good) Friday.
The Copts use a lot of incense. Like the Catholics, we only use incense at specific parts of the Liturgy. However a Coptic Priest is constantly swinging the censer during their Liturgy.
Thanks for the information Fr. John.
You speak of the Eastern Orthodox laity’s use of incense. What about Catholic laity using incense in their homes? It wasn’t clear to me if your statement “Like the Catholics, we only use incense at specific parts of the Liturgy” meant that Catholic laity are not supposed or allowed to use incense, only the clergy during a (specific part of a) Liturgy.
What I mean is that during the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the deacon or priest censes the before the Gospel is chanted, and at other specific times during the divine Liturgy and other services. Some times we cense just the altar and sanctruary, sometimes we cense the altar, sanctuary and whole Church. Whereas, at the Coptic Liturgies that I have attended the Priest is constantly swinging the cneser. As far as the practice for Catholic laity, I have no idea.