Day Twenty – Incense

The smell of incense is so much a part of our experience of worship that the smell – smell is one of the strongest triggers of memory for the brain – automatically calms us and moves us towards prayer.  

Low-church Christians are often uncomfortable with incense in part because it is used in pagan ceremonies.  I find this odd.  Pagans use poetry, rhythmic hymns, and chanting in their ceremonies, too, but there is not move to pull these elements out of Christian worship.  Like music, incense is common across traditions first because it works and second because it is part of the archetypical worship that all humans are drawn to be a part of (note that these two points are actually related: incense is effective BECAUSE it is part of heavenly worship!).

It’s How God is Worshipped in His Throne Room

Let’s look first at the Old Testament: Isaiah was brought into the midst of heavenly worship.  Here is how he described the experience; “I saw the Lord on His throne, high and lifted up, and his vestment filled the temple.  Above it stood the seraphim [i.e. a special kind of angel]…, proclaiming to one another, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.’  …  and the house was filled with incense (Isaiah 6:1-5).  

To help validate that experience, the following account is provided by another man who was taken up into a vision of God’s Throne Room, St. John the Theologian.  He provides this account in Revelation (part of the New Testament); “Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar [in heaven]; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne.”  (Revelation 8:3).  

How to Bring that into Your Home

Incense is effective, it is part of heavenly worship.  You can use it to bring more peace to your prayers at home.  I’ve tried many ways of doing this to include burning it on coal and using pre-made incense sticks and cones.  These are good, but with little kids in the house and having been through a fire recently, we at the Perkins household are wary of those methods.  Nowadays, we use a couple of electric devices to warm up the incense and release its aroma.  One is a wax warmer from Yankee Candle.  It is made to heat scented wax tabs, but works great with incense.  The second is a simple coffee cup warmer.  For both, it is important to put a layer of aluminum foil down to keep the resin from sticking to the surface.  This is also a great method for those who are allergic to the charcoal.  FWIW, I’ve played with something like this for church use, but with very little success; it’s hard to get a portable surface hot enough to release the incense in clouds of smoke.  Experiments will continue.

Some Satire

Some people get upset about icons that mix Eastern pagan colors and lines with traditional Orthodox iconography.  Mix that in with my (academic) interest in the use of hallucinogenics in some pagan worship, and you get the following commercial from the OrthoAnalytika archives:

St. Ashram Monastery Icons presents a new line of incense: Samadhi Spice!  Yes, that’s right, the people who created the hugely successful line of icons blending ancient Hindu lines and colors with Orthodox themes have done the same with another staple of Orthodox worship: incense!  This new line of incense uses resin from the gum of the Bodhi Tree as a medium to mix the exotic scent of the Champa flower and the traditional offerings of frankincense and myrrh with the heightened meditative power of K2 Spice.  Join your prayer as it rises like incense to the highest heavens – Samadhi Spice.  Perfect for every church and prayer corner!

Here’s a link to the mp3 of the show (subscribe on iTunes!).