by Jonathan Kohlmeier
“And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Matt. 2:11
“When anyone brings a grain offering as an offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour. He shall pour oil on it and put frankincense on it and bring it to Aaron's sons the priests. And he shall take from it a handful of the fine flour and oil, with all of its frankincense, and the priest shall burn this as its memorial portion on the altar, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” Lev. 2:1-2
Discussions of using incense in worship always tend to come up much more around The Feast of Our Lord’s Epiphany (one of the magi’s gifts being frankincense and all). Unfortunately, the discussions are usually missing something. They’re missing something big. They’re missing the gift of incense! They miss how it points to Jesus.
Now, of course, there are many who really, really don’t like incense. Maybe they associate all smoke with the smell of not-so-good smelling smoke. Maybe they have trouble breathing when there is too much incense smoke or countless other reasons. On the other hand, there are people who love the smell of incense, they love burning incense and end up burning too much for the space that they are in and what the ventilation is like. That certainly isn’t very helpful for those who already don’t like incense.
But let’s put all of that aside and assume that everyone can sit (in good health) in a sanctuary where an appropriate amount of incense was burned before the service or during select points of the liturgy (like the singing of Psalm 141). Now what? Why should we use incense?
Here are the answers you usually tend to get: “Shouldn’t church smell like church?” “Incense visualizes our prayer before God.” Along with that, “It’s biblical! The Psalms say, ‘Let my prayer rise before You as incense.’” “No one was ever allergic to incense before - People just don’t like it because they think it’s too Roman Catholic.” I’m sure you’ve heard some of those before. None of those are completely terrible answers but they still miss the gift of incense. Some of them get close but just don’t get to it.
Those answers miss the gift of incense because they have nothing to do with Jesus! If you ask someone why they do what they do during the liturgy and their answer has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, they’re probably better off not doing it. There are times when incense is burned for the sake of having incense without even a passing thought of what it confesses about Jesus. When incense is burned because that’s how the liturgy is really SUPPOSED to be done, there’s no gift there. No gift at all!
Then comes the Feast of Our Lord’s Epiphany. The magi bring Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We always hear a lot of about the gold and myrrh - how they are fitting gifts for Jesus. What about the gift of frankincense?
What was frankincense used for? It was used with sacrifices to make the aroma, the smell, of the sacrifice pleasing to the Lord. Pastors who have studied Biblical Hebrew usually mention that in the Old Testament when God was angry with Israel the text literally talks about His nose burning. The incense was meant to soothe the nose of God so that the Israelites might once again be in His favor.
That’s where the gift of incense lies. The magi bring frankincense to Jesus which point us to why He is born in the first place. He’s born to be the ultimate sacrifice, the final sacrifice, for them, and for you!
So, now what? What purpose does incense serve? How does it point us to Jesus? The gift of incense is that it reminds us that God is angry with His people no more! Incense proclaims that there has been a sacrifice whose aroma was pleasing to God. Jesus, on the cross, taking upon Himself the sin of the world, for you! No longer will God’s nose burn against you because the sweet fragrance of Christ’s sacrifice has soothed it! Jesus has taken the full blow of God’s anger, so that you might have forgiveness and everlasting life!
That’s the gift of incense. It’s always pointing to Jesus, who makes you smell good to God! Happy Epiphany!
Jonathan Kohlmeier is a member of Mt. Zion Lutheran Church in Greenfield, WI. He is also the IT Assistant for Higher Things.