An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church


When burned or heated, usually over charcoal, certain woods and solidified resins give off a fragrant smoke. Both the materials and the smoke are called incense. Incense was widely used in Judaism and other cultures of the ancient world as a means of sacrifice, purification, and veneration. Frankincense or pure incense, the resin of certain trees, was among the gifts brought by the Magi to the young child Christ (Mt 2:11). Despite this scriptural precedent, early Christians avoided incense as a pagan practice connected with sacrifice and emperor worship, and churches did not begin to use it until the fourth century. Thereafter incense was burned at several points in the Daily Office and the Eucharist, and extensively in eastern churches. For Christians today, incense is associated mainly with prayer, as Rv 8:3-4 suggests. Many Anglicans feel free to use it as a sacred symbol and aid to worship. The first option in the BCP for an opening sentence at Evening Prayer is “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps 141:2) (BCP, pp. 61, 115). The BCP states that incense may be used during the singing of Phos hilaron in the “Order of Worship for the Evening” (p. 143), and during the covering of the altar in the “Consecration of a Church.” There are congregations where incense is used at the Easter Vigil and other major feasts, and some parishes use it regularly on Sunday.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.