Our Prayers as Incense

a liturgical note from Fr. James Arcadi, Presiding Priest

Anglican worship is embodied worship; it is a multi-sensory experience. Too often in our day do we become disembodied consumers relegated to being avatars, profile pics, and bar codes. But when we come to worship, we bring all that we are, minds and bodies. In grade school, we learn of the five ways our bodies perceive the world, each of which is engaged in our worship:

we hear beautiful music and the Word read and preached,
we see such symbols as crosses, candles, robes, and sacred vessels.
we touch the pews, the altar rail, and the ground as our bodies stand, kneel, and walk,
we taste the bread and wine made Body and Blood for us. 

Yet a fifth—and at times neglected—sense is not abandoned in our worship, a fully embodied worship will smell the sacred praises of God’s people.

When the Psalmist wrote, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice” (141:2), he was not being merely poetic. The Psalmist here refers literally to Temple worship wherein incense was offered at the evening and morning prayers. One of God’s key instructions regarding the construction of the Israelite worship space was that it include a place for burning incense (Exodus 30:1-10). In this season of celebrating the birth of Christ, we can recall two instances where incense plays a role around this time of Scripture’s narrative. First, it was at “the hour of incense” (Luke 1:10) when the angel appeared to Zechariah to foretell the birth of John the Baptist. And second, of course, incense was one of the three gifts that the Wise Men gave to the baby Jesus when they worshiped him. 

The people of God have long been using incense in their worship of God. And in this way—among many others—our embodied Anglican worship draws direct lines of connection to the worship described and prescribed in Scripture.