APPENDIX C. THE THEOLOGICAL VALUE OF INCENSE.
By the Rev. Henry Robert Percival,
Rector of the Church of the Evangelists, Philadelphia, U.S.A.
Part I. THE MEANING OF INCENSE.
The burning of Incense seems to have had two distinct meanings, as used in the Christian Church, the meaning varying in accordance with the source from which the practice was taken.
(A) A Mark of Respect to that before which it was burned.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans burned Incense before their gods and before the likenesses of the Emperor in token of veneration and high regard. This heathen use of Incense was in a standing vessel (the turibulum) which was really a moveable grate, or more ordinarily a stationary altar (ara). A pinch of frankincense was taken out of the acerra and was thrown upon the coals. Incense was wont to be burned before the representations of the Emperors in heathen times, as a mark of respect, and this was carried over into the Christian days as Dr. Doellinger remarks in his “History of the Church” (Eng. tr., Vol. III., p. 55) and to this reference is made by the Bishop Theodosius, who had belonged to the Iconoclasts, but who made his submission at the second Nicene Synod, (Labbe Concilia, viii. 705c. Venice, 1729,) where he expressly says that even at that late date the custom had still survived, and that when the Laurata et iconae of the Emperor were sent to any city or town, the people went out to receive them “with lights and incense,” and argues that “it was surely not the tablet covered with wax, but the Emperor himself, that was thus honoured.” (On the subject of these laurata, cf. Du Cange, Gloss.)
It may well be supposed that this idea of marking the respect one bears towards some person or thing by burning Incense before him or it was the origin, not only of the Incense offered to the Christian Emperors and their likenesses, and of that which was offered in the path of the heathen victor at his triumph, but also of the offering of Incense before images, altars, the book of the Holy Gospels, and other objects and persons deemed by the early Christians worthy of special respect. In this connection, it may not be amiss to remark that no ceremonial act has any inherent meaning, its meaning being entirely dependent upon the intention with which it is performed. The same outward ceremonial act may mean different things, or different grades of the same thing. It is a complete mistake to suppose that the burning of Incense necessarily is an act of Divine worship, or has any necessary connection with sacrifice. As has just been pointed out, it may be nothing more than an act of civil and political respect. The removal of the hat in Church and at the meeting of a friend or of a funeral is a precisely similar case. This heathen-derived idea of Incense seems to have been sanctified by the early Church, and by her to have been incorporated into her worship, and we find this idea expressed in the ordinary form for blessing Incense in the West—“Mayest thou be blessed by Him in Whose honour thou art to be burned.”
(B) The mystical setting forth of Prayer.
But there was a deeper meaning attached to the burning of Incense among God’s chosen people than was ever found among the heathen. To the Jews the smoke of the Incense was the sweet savour of prayer rising up before the Most High. “Let my prayer be set forth in Thy sight as the Incense.” There is no need to cite other passages to the same purpose. The Jews not only knew that the Incense they offered set forth the power of prayer in general, but above all they connected it with that all-availing intercession which was to be made by the promised Messiah to whom all their ceremonies pointed. (On this, see the Jewish Commentators. Ebrard has some good remarks on this head.) And yet this ceremony of burning Incense before God was peculiar and different from most of their rites. All those other rites would be fulfilled and vanish away when Christ was come, but this rite and the “pure Mincha,” with which it was so intimately connected, should continue on in the Gospel Days. The blood of circumcision would no more be shed, the blood of the beast would no more be poured forth, but from East to West among the Gentiles the pure Mincha would be offered to God’s Name with the smoke of the Incense. No unbiassed commentator can question the statement that if the “pure offering” is material and not merely symbolical, namely, the material offering of the elements of Holy Eucharist, then, too, the Incense must be material; nor is it possible to explain away the material character of the Mincha by interpreting “pure” to mean immaterial, as our profoundly learned Joseph Mede in commentating on this text well notes. He says that if “pure” be understood as meaning that it was “αθύτως θύεσθαι, to be sacrificed without sacrificing rites” . . . “it would make the literal sense of our prophet to be absurd, and to say ‘in every place Incense is offered to My Name, and an offering without Incense.’ And yet this would be the literal meaning of ‘pure’ here signified without Incense.” (Book II., page 358, fourth edition, 1877.)
(It should be noted that the word “Incense” does not occur at all in this passage in the Roman Catholic Vulgate, but that version is undoubtedly incorrect here, the true meaning being found in the Septuagint.)
It would seem then that the use of Incense in the Christian Church, if not directly pre-ordained by Almighty God, is at least most agreeable to the Holy Scriptures; and as it has been in vogue in the whole Church from time immemorial, it would seem that it could hardly properly be laid aside even by the direct, clear, and unequivocal action of a particular Church, unless, indeed, it had become so associated with false doctrine as to be perilous to the purity of the faith of the people.
There seems to be only one more point in this connection to dwell upon. In the Jewish Church, besides the Altar of Incense, and the little cups of Incense on the top of the piles of Shewbread, censers carried in the hand were in constant use. Everyone will remember the case of Korah. Also, there was a censer, which on the great day of Atonement, the high Priest took with him into the Holy of Holies.
This method of using Incense in a swinging vessel is that most commonly mentioned in the New Testament, and is practically the only one now known to the Church of God. [In the Orthodox Eastern Church, before the commencement of Mattins at midnight on Easter Day, Incense is burnt in two standing vessels, one in the centre of the nave, the other behind the iconostasion, in order that when the Resurrection is proclaimed the whole church may be filled with the sweet odour of frankincense. This, however, is the only occasion on which it is so burnt.]
Part II. THE DOCTRINAL MEANING OF THE CENSINGS PRACTISED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.
We come now to the consideration of the theological meaning to be attached to the censings of persons and things, as practised by the Christian Church from the earliest times. I do not think it is necessary to set down all the mystical meanings assigned to the use of Incense by the various Liturgical and Ritual writers. Their works are perfectly accessible, and can be examined by anyone, although no doubt there are many true and useful meanings to be attached to this ceremony of the Church, but I shall endeavour to arrive at one general underlying principle. This principle has been rather culled from many sources and digested, than found clearly set forth in any one writer, but yet it would seem to be none the less sound on this account. To set forth, then, the matter in a word, it may be said that—Whatever was sprinkled or touched with blood in the Old Law, to show the need of a dying Redeemer to come, is, under the New Law, censed, to show that there is no more any need of fresh sacrifice for sin, that the sacrifice set forth in type and figure by the sacrifices of the Law has been offered by Christ, once for all (ἅπαξ), “A full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world”; that that sacrifice needs no repetition, that nothing can be added to it, and that all that now is needed is that we, who are still without the veil and yet parts of the mystical Body of the Eternal Victim, that we, together with our prayers, as a sweet smelling savour, should be gathered in one, and enfolded in His all prevailing intercession, which, as our Great High Priest, He offers, “through His Blood” on the Heavenly Altar. This seems to be the view held by St. Thomas Aquinas (III., 83, v. Ad. 2), “The offering of Incense represents the effect of grace, of which Christ (as of a sweet savour) is full; and which from Christ is derived to the faithful by the office of the ministry; and therefore, when the Altar by which Christ is signified has been censed on every side, all the people are censed in order.”
Of course the bestowal of grace and the Lord’s intercession are essentially the same, as having their source in the same blood-shedding of the Immaculate Lamb. A clearer and more profound statement I find in Smith’s “Dictionary of the Bible;” “Looking upon Incense in connection with the other ceremonial observances of the Mosaic ritual, it would rather seem to be symbolical, not of prayer itself, but of that which makes prayer acceptable, the intercession of Christ.”
In the Ninth Chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews is set forth the whole rationale of the ceremonial censings of the Christian Church. But before enlarging on this, a word should be said with regard to the use of Incense under the old dispensation. Nor should this point be left without referring to Bishop Westcott’s commentary on this Epistle, in which will be found the most perfect setting forth in the English, or probably in any language, of the mystery of the Lord’s present intercession.
It will be remembered that in the Tabernacle, outside the first veil, which separated the Holy Place from the people, stood the Altar of Sacrifice to show that the way to God was shut up by sin. Only by blood could that way be opened at all, and then only to few, and to them at fixed times. In the Old Law, without shedding of blood was no remission, and “almost all things were by the law purged with blood.” But immediately before the second veil, really belonging to (as the Apostle expressly tells us) the Holy of Holies, stood the Golden Altar of Incense. There, hidden from the sight of the people, rose up the smoke of the Incense, morning and evening, telling of a time that was to come, when no more would the shedding of blood be required, nor would veils shut out God’s people from access to His Presence, but that the veil should be rent apart and men might go freely to God, but even then only through the Incense of the intercession of the Great High Priest, Who ever liveth to make intercession for us, for no man cometh to the Father but by Him. This, however, was not all, for hidden likewise from the people’s sight was the Golden Table with the loaves of the Shewbread, which has been taken by the Fathers to be the type of the New Law’s new Oblation, the “pure Mincha” of the Holy Eucharist, the central act of worship of the Gospel; and it must not be forgotten that a vessel of burning Incense was set on the top of each heap to cense the oblations. No doubt it is to this that Malachi refers when he combines (as always in the Holy Scriptures) the offering of the meal-offering with the burning of Incense. All without the veil was to pass away, but that within was to endure. It is worthy of note in this connection that so much has the Eastern Church been impressed with this universal coupling in Holy Scriptures of the offering of Incense with the offering of bread, that Incense is offered by her at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, and its omission is looked upon by Easterns as a Roman corruption.
But when once the Blood had been shed that “paid the price for sinners due,” then the symbolical sprinkling of blood lost all significance and efficacy. By the law, almost all things were purged by blood, but in the Gospel all things are brought to God, and sanctified, and knit in one, through the intercession of the Divine Atonement. Exactly in accordance with this is, and has been, the practice of the whole Church in the use of Incense. The Apostle says “that Moses sprinkled both the Book and all the people … both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the Ministry,” and in the law we read the particular way in which the four corners of the Altar were touched with blood, etc., etc. Now it is evident that, substituting censing for sprinkling with blood, we have the custom of the whole Church of God. We need no more atoning Blood; that was shed once for all, and a full satisfaction made ages ago, but we need to be included in the Divine intercession, and hence we set this forth in mystery when we cense the book of the Gospels, and the holy ministers performing the service, and all the people, and the Altar at its four corners, and the Holy Oblations of bread and wine, and in procession the “tabernacle” (i.e., the whole Church), and “the whole house is filled with smoke,” which mystically sets forth that we on earth are wrapped in the cloud of the heavenly intercession.
From the foregoing, it is clear that the offering of Incense in the Christian Church is the setting forth of the power of prayer, won by the Incarnation of the Divine Son; it will not, therefore, be a cause of surprise to find that by our Western custom Incense is offered in the morning at Benedictus, and in the evening at Magnificat, the daily commemoration in the choir offices of the morning and evening sacrifices of the old dispensation; and since the object of the Incarnation was that He might have “a body” to offer to God in sacrifice, naturally it is about the Altar, where we keep the memorial of His precious death and sacrifice until His coming again, that the ritual censings are centred. [In the Orthodox Eastern Church Magnificat and Benedictus together form the ninth “Ode” or Canticle from Holy Scripture at Matins. Whilst it is sung the Altar and all the church and congregation are censed At Vespers the censing corresponding with that which is here mentioned in the text takes place during the Psalm Κύριε εκέκραξα, containing the verse: Let my prayer be set forth in Thy sight as the Incense, etc.]
It does not seem necessary to enter here into the theological meaning of each separate act of censing, all no doubt are the result of the teaching of the Spirit of God; but there is one point of such great antiquity, and of such singular pathos, that it should not be omitted. Of course it will be remembered how usually, almost universally, in the primitive Church, the martyrs were buried under the Altar, and so it came about that the Priest, while censing the Altar at the South end, stooped down and censed the feet of the dear servant of Christ, and then again his head, when he was come to the North, and the whole body as he passed back from North to South. The bodies of the Saints are but rarely there now, but the Church has continued her method of censing, wrapping all, both quick and dead, in the all availing intercession of Her Great Head.
It is no part of our intention to claim a Scriptural authority, or suggestion even, of every detail of the present method of using Incense in the Christian Church. We distinctly affirm with St. Thomas (vide loc. cit.) that its use does not rest upon the authority of the Mosaic law, but upon that of the Christian Church alone. We are ready to admit with many of the learned, among whom may be numbered Aquinas, De Vert, and Scudamore (against others of equal learning), that the desire of producing a sweet smell in a place which otherwise would have been foul, may have had something to do with its introduction into the Christian Church, as it undoubtedly had something to do with its being ordered by Moses for use in the Tabernacle made of skins. We affirm, with Tertullian, that we use Incense in a fashion different from the heathen, to wit—in a swinging censer, and not in a standing vessel, as the Pagans did. We are of opinion that the censing of persons and things is the only method of using Incense which is distinctly Christian; and finally we deny that it is possible to find in this custom of the Church (be its antiquity what it may) any superstition, or the setting forth of any doctrine other than the perfect sufficiency of the Sacrifice of Calvary, and the need of all being gathered in one through the intercession of the Eternal Victim, which for a sweet savour rises before the Mercy Seat on High.
—The Case for Incense, Submitted to His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury on Behalf of the Rev. H. Westall on Monday, May 8, 1899 (London: Longmans, 1899), pp. 89-96.