Views from the Pews: Understanding the use of incense

St Mary and Joseph Church, Pocklington.
St Mary and Joseph Church, Pocklington.

As Christmas is nearly upon us we can picture the stable at Bethlehem which we see in so many of our traditional Christmas cards and Nativity scenes; we see Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, we see the shepherds, angels and kings.

The kings bring three gifts for Jesus, each representing some aspect of what we believe about Jesus. Gold is given to the king, frankincense for the Son of God and myrrh to prepare his body for burial. One of those gifts which is often used in Catholic churches is frankincense.

Frankincense comes from the sap of a tree and is collected the same way as rubber is harvested. For church use it is made into grains and is sprinkled onto hot charcoal and gives off a sweet-smelling smoke.

In the ancient world incense was a very expensive product, historical records show how it was valued and traded in Arabia, North Africa and India. It was used in making perfumes, skin products and medicines, to sweeten the air before drains and sewers existed, and it was used in most world religions for worship. Incense is described in the great empires of Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

In the Bible incense is mentioned many times in the worship of God, Moses is recorded as having instructions on how the ingredients had to be pure and uncontaminated. Also, at the end of the Bible there is a description of heaven where incense is used for the worship of God.

On the surface some might ignore these parts of the Bible as irrelevant, or criticise our church rituals as being empty. But looking a little deeper for understanding, each part of the Bible and each ritual teaches us something about God.

What do these references to incense teach us? They show us that God is holy and pure and deserves the best that we can give him; they show us that as the sweet incense can only come from pure ingredients so our prayers can only be effective when they come from a pure and sincere heart; they teach us that God has already 
given us the means to be purified and blessed in his service.

As we picture the Nativity scene and see the offerings of the kings let us remember the words of the famous carol:

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give him –give my heart.