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Comparative Theology, book by H. H. Pope Shenouda III
Our brethren the Protestants do not use incense or censers, considering them part of the Old Testament worship which were mere symbols and have now terminated. Here we would like to display the history of incense in the past and present and see whether incense is a symbol or an independent spiritual performance.
(1) The Lord said to Moses: “You shall make an altar to burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood” (Ex.30: 1). Here the Lord presents us an important point: The incense was considered a sacrifice in itself, offered on an altar called the altar of incense.
(2) The Lord gave great importance to the altar of incense. He commanded that it be overlaid on all sides with gold, have a horn of gold, be carried on two rings overlaid with gold and be placed before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony where He would meet with Moses (Ex.30: 3-6).
(3) The incense was conditioned to be ‘sweet incense’. The Lord says: “Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning” (Ex.30: 7). And also at twilight “he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations” (Ex.30: 8).
The spices for making the sweet incense are mentioned in (Ex.30: 34). It is said that this incense “shall be to you holy for the Lord” (Ex.30: 37). Moreover, “It shall be most holy to you... you shall not make any for yourselves, according to its composition” (Ex.30: 36,37).
The phrase ‘sweet incense’ is repeated on many occasions in the Holy Bible: (Ex.25: 6); (Ex.37: 29); (Lev.16: 12). So incense represented a fragrant perfume ascending before the Lord.
(4) Some people are mistaken and say that incense was presented with burnt offerings to absorb their smell. And as there are no animal burnt offerings now, incense is subsequently cancelled. This interpretation is unsound because incense was a form of worship independent in itself. It had its own special altar different from the altar of burnt offerings. It had its own rites in the way of offering it. It was meant and considered as a prayer in itself and not as a symbol of another thing.
(5) We notice that when the Lord sent the plague on the Israelites, Aaron the chief priest, upon Moses' command, took his censer, put incense in it and burnt it with fire from the altar to intercede for the people before God, and we have discussed this issue before here on st-takla.org in other pages. When he ran into the midst of the assembly and offered the incense, the plague ceased. The Lord accepted the incense from Aaron as a prayer (Num.16: 44-48) as though it were a sacrifice.
We notice that Aaron did not offer a sacrifice for the Israelites, but incense alone. The incense was not offered to absorb the smell of a burnt offering but it was an offering to make atonement for the people (Num. 16: 46,47).
(6) Because of the importance of incense, only priests were allowed to offer it. So incense is in a higher position than prayer because prayer can be raised by any individual to the Lord. When Korah, Dathan and Abiram dared to offer incense, the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them with all their belongings. So they went down to the pit alive (Num.16: 31,32). This happened not because they offered a sacrifice, but because they offered incense, even though they were of the tribe of Levi.
(7) As incense was so important, it was offered in golden censers as is written in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb.9: 4) and as is said about the twenty-four priests who had golden bowls full of incense (Rev.5: 8).
(8) In the Book of the Prophet Malachi, there is a prophecy about the continuation of the offering of incense and that it is not limited to the Jewish Era. The Lord says: “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations” (Mal.1: 11). Of course, worship among the Gentiles did not happen except in the Era of Christianity. Thus the Lord has included incense among the forms of Christian worship.
(9) There are two examples in the New Testament showing the Divine concern about incense, and both are written in the Book of Revelation:
(a) About the twenty-four priests, it is written: “and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev.5: 8).
(b) St. John the Visionary says: “Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. And he was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar, which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel's hand” (Rev.8: 3,4).
(10) In commenting on the expression “the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God”, we say that the whole life of the Church is incense. The Church is resembled to incense in the Book of the Song of Solomon, in which the Divine Inspiration says: “Who is this coming out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the merchant‘s fragrant powders?” (Song 3: 6)
(11) One of the important situations in the history of incense in the life of the saints is that the angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias the priest on the right side of the altar of incense while he was burning incense in his lot (Lk.1: 8-11). This is proof of the sanctity of the place and the sanctity of the work of offering incense. This holy occasion was worthy to be associated with a Divine revelation.
It is clear from the incident of Zacharias' burning incense in his lot that offering incense was a separate work in itself; it was not connected with the offering of a sacrifice or burnt offering.
(12) Because incense is important in Christianity, frankincense (which is a component of incense) was one of the gifts offered by the Magi to Christ. It was a symbol of His Priesthood and a profession from the Magi that He is a Priest, in the same way that gold was a symbol of His Kingdom and myrrh a symbol of His sufferings.
(13) Incense has numerous meanings, which satisfy the senses and nourish the soul. Not all those who attend church are of a profound spiritual level and deep thought. Children, for example, who do not apprehend much from the sermon or the readings of the Holy Bible or the prayers, are spiritually affected through their senses by the incense, candles and icons which serve as spiritual lessons for them, uplifting them to a spiritual atmosphere. The same applies to the uninformed and superficial believers who have no depth of knowledge and have not studied theological books.
Spiritual meanings and contemplation of incense
(14) The first lesson we learn from incense is the Lord's teaching: “...he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt.10: 39). An example of this is the particle of incense, which burns and burns until it becomes perfumed pillars of smoke. You look for it in the censer as a particle of incense, but you do not find it because it offered itself as a burnt offering to God.
Burnt offerings are not only of sacrifices but also of incense, which the Holy Bible considers as a sacrifice to be offered on the altar of incense. Incense teaches us a great lesson. How beautiful it is when a man offers himself as a burnt offering to the Lord! Every offering is outside the self but the offering of the self is the greatest offering. Offering the self is represented by putting the particle of incense in the fire. It is said that our God is a consuming fire (Deut.4: 24). The saints were particles of incense put into the Divine censer and were burnt by the love of God.
(15) The second lesson in incense is its constant ascent. The burning incense does not accept to be kept down, but it rises to the sky, stretches and spreads and never ceases to ascend and spread. When you watch and follow it you cannot help raising your eyes to the sky whether you wish to or not. That is why incense always attracts people's senses to above as if it is an arrow pointing continually to heaven.
(16) A third lesson in incense is that it resembles the sweet aroma. The Holy Bible conditions incense to be sweet incense. Whoever smells the incense remembers that man's life should be a fragrant perfume before God. The Holy Bible says: “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ... through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place” (2Cor.2: 15,14).
(17) One of the most magnificent contemplation of incense is that it reminds us of the cloud or the dark cloud in which the Lord appeared. The Lord says: “I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat” (Lev.16: 2). It is also written in the Book of Leviticus: “...cloud of incense” (Lev.16: 13). It was said about Aaron the chief priest: “Then he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die” (Lev.16: 12,13).
In directing His people in the Old Testament, whether in the Tabernacle or in the Sanctuary or in the Wilderness of Sinai, God appeared in the cloud or in the smoke. His guidance to the people in Sinai was in the form of an overshadowing cloud during the day, representing God who was overshadowing them. If the cloud moved, they knew that God was moving them so they moved. If the cloud settled, they settled (Num.9: 17). Thus it is written: “And the cloud of the Lord was above them by day when they went out from the camp” (Nurn.10: 34).
(18) When the Lord Jesus Christ came to Egypt it is said that He came on a cloud (Is.19: 1). The cloud was a symbol of the Virgin who was an ascending fragrant incense. In Christ's Second Coming, He will also come on the clouds (Matt.24: 30). So clouds represent the presence of the Lord in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.
(19) The incident of the Transfiguration is an example of God's presence in clouds. It is written that while the Lord Jesus Christ was talking to the three disciples, “a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were fearful as they entered the cloud. Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!’ ” (Lk.9: 34,35)
(20) The Lord talked to Moses from a cloud. When the Lord spoke to Moses, the Holy Bible says: "Then Moses went up into the mountain, and a cloud covered the mountain. Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud" (Ex.24: 15,16). The same happened when the Lord spoke to the people of Israel from the Tabernacle: the cloud and smoke were overshadowing the Tabernacle.
(21) We see the same again in the consecration of Solomon's Temple. The Holy Bible says: “And it came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. Then Solomon spoke: ‘The Lord said He would dwell in the dark cloud’ ”(1Kin.8: 10-12).
(22) Incense represents clouds or dark clouds reminding us of God's presence and the glory of God. It is written: “Clouds and darkness surround Him” (Ps.97: 2). Therefore incense has numerous spiritual meanings for whoever wishes to benefit from it. It is a form of worship in itself. It was not connected with the Old Testament sacrifices thus not necessitating its termination with that of those sacrifices
(23) Lastly, we say that there is not one single verse in the New Testament commanding the cancellation of incense: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev.2: 7).
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