You may notice during Holy Week the presence of incense at some of our services. What is the purpose of incense? In short, it’s part of the larger purpose of liturgy which is designed to stimulate the worshiper by exciting the senses and feeding our imagination, enabling us to completely focus on our spiritual being in our worship of our Lord. All of our senses come into play. The sights of the altar hangings and vestments, sounds of the spoken word and the beautiful music; the taste of the bread and wine, the touch of exchanging the peace and the Easter water and oil used at baptism; and the sweet fragrance of the incense combine to create a powerful and mystical worship experience.
The incense used at St. Bart’s is a pure hypoallergenic frankincense (one of the three gifts brought to the Christ child by the magi).
For those interested in liturgy, here are the points in the service in which incense can be used.
- On the entrance into the sanctuary, to purify and prepare the space in anticipation of the arrival of God into our worship.
- The priest is censed by the deacon or thurifer because the priest himself is to become an instrument through which God acts in the service.
- Then the congregation is censed for they are going to receive their communion - God is going to visit them. Through participation in the sacrament, they also are to become instruments through which God acts in the service. They are due honor in their own right as the Mystical Body of Christ through which (with the priest) God acts to become present once more.
- The Gospel is censed because through it God still speaks to us.
- At the beginning of Holy Eucharist, the priest censes the altar. The significance of this ceremony is twofold. It symbolizes our preparation for the coming of our King, and also symbolizes the ascent of our penitent prayer for mercy to the throne of grace. It also purifies us to make us worthy to sit at His table in His Heavenly Kingdom.
In deference to those who may be unaccustomed or uncomfotable with it, incense is used sparingly, and the thurible is brought into the nave only as long as needed. We will make every effort to notify in advance if we intend to use incense as well as offer incense-free alternative services.
~ Warren Mock
Warren has been a member of St. Bart's since 2004, moving here from the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio. In 2014 he felt the call to become a Verger. He is a member of the International Guild of Vergers, and has been head verger at St. Bart's since 2015. He and his wife Dawn live in Rancho Bernardo.
Portions of this article written by Fr. Homer F. Rogers from a brochure at St. John’s Church, Newport, RI. Adapted by the Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont, PA. Further adaptation by Warren Mock, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Poway CA 2016.