Inasmuch as the offering of incense formed part of the religious ceremonial of people generally in very ancient times, it is possible that something of the kind has been a traditional usage from the earliest age of human existence. It appears to be a r(easonable inference from the holy Scriptures, that the Jewish priests, by the command to burn incense in divine worship, were not called upon to perform an act entirely novel to them but to employ, in a novel manner, materials with which, in religious ceremonial of their own and of the heathen, they were already familiar.
The burning of incense in the sanctuary was one of the most solemn duties and greatest privileges of the Jewish priesthood. None but a priest might offer incense in the sanctuary. The very materials of which this incense was composed, and the proportions of the several substances, were divinely ordered; no other kind of incense might be used by the Jews in divine worship, and they were forbidden to make any common or profane use of the sacred mixture. Without the smoke and odour of burning incense the High Priest must have died when he entered the Most Holy Place; and it was while he was engaged in offering incense that Zacharias was visited by the archangel Gabriel. It is clear that in divine worship under the Mosaic dispensation, incense, by the express command of God, was an important factor.
The religious use of incense, namely, the burning of fragrant gums at certain times, after the accustomed manner, in divine service, is now accounted an immemorial custom in the Christian Church; but this usage, while it has been at times universal and during many centuries has been continuous in many places, does not appear to have been continuous from the days of the Apostles. The council of Trent declared the use of incense to be one of the religious customs authorized by "Apostolical discipline and tradition;" and it is quite possible that incense has been used, at least occasionally, in Christian worship from the earliest times. Nevertheless, the evidence we have at present seems to prove that Christians made little or no ceremonial use of incense during the first two or three centuries of our era.
In the days when violent persecutions were frequent, willingness or unwillingness to cast a few grains of incense upon burning coals on a moveable grate or a stationary altar placed before an image of the reigning Emperor, was a common test whereby the heathen persecutors readily determined whether, or no, persons held the Christian faith; for by imperial decrees, and according to common belief in heathen times, the offering of incense before the Roman Emperor, or before his image, was a recognition of his claim to be treated as a god. Whenever, under such conditions, a Christian willingly offered incense to the Emperor, or to his image, he committed an act of idolatry and apostatized from the true faith; and it may well have been, that because incense was identified with idolatry and associated with apostasy, Christians ceased for a time to use it in their worship. In later times Christians did not hesitate to burn incense before Christian Emperors or before their images, as a manifest token of the reverence and respect which they had for the man and his high office.
When the ages of bloody persecutions were over, Christians at once either revived the use of incense, or began to use it, in their worship; and this usage was well established at Rome about the middle of the fourth century. There is abundant evidence, that a similar but more elaborate ceremonial use of incense obtained in the East at about the same period.
The wide-spread prejudice which now exists among Christians of the Anglican Communion against the use of incense in religious ceremonial is not easily explained. Doubtless, in many minds, the use of incense in divine worship is associated with mediaeval corruptions and superstitions; but in this opinion our people of today appear to differ widely from the reforming party in England during the latter half of the sixteenth century, for it was not until about the middle of the seventeenth century, when the Puritans were dominant, that this usage was formally opposed. Incense appears to have been used generally in the Church of England during the sixteenth century and in some localities until early in the eighteenth century. About the middle of the last century this usage was again revived in a few English parishes, and it is now maintained in many churches, chapels, missions, and religious houses, in all parts of the Anglican Communion.
The first question that arises in the minds of Church of England folk--and to some extent among members of the Episcopal Church in this country--about a religious custom with which they are not familiar, is apt to be, Is it lawful? Some of us, misled by the partisan judgments of civil courts in England, think that the ceremonial use of incense is not allowed in our churches by any recognized and competent authority. As a matter of fact, this usage, by reason of its long continuance and universal acceptance throughout Catholic Christendom, has acquired the force of common or unwritten ecclesiastical law which cannot lawfully be set aside by local authorities. Indeed, many pious and learned members of the Church of England deem the ceremonial use of incense in English churches to be of statutory authority, i. e., called for by the statute law, which enforces both canon and common law. For it is well nigh certain that censers are among the things required, by the "Ornaments Rubric," "to be in use;" and this rubric is part of the Book of Common Prayer, which is prescribed by and incorporated into the statute law of the English realm.
Assuming its lawfulness, the next question will probably be, Is the use of incense in divine worship of sufficient importance to warrant reviving it to any great extent in our churches? An impartial reply to this question must surely be in the affirmative; because a custom which for many centuries has been universal, and by Catholic interpretation is believed to be called for by the prophecy of Malachi (i, ii), and which among the intensely conservative Christians of the Orthodox Eastern Church finds its place in every Mass, must surely be of sufficient importance to warrant its revival among us, whenever and wherever it can be done without serious misunderstanding and needless offence.
Moreover, as human beings owe to God a service in which all the powers and faculties of their nature shall find some exercise, it follows that the sense of smell is not to be ignored.
We employ sight, hearing, touch, and taste, in our worship of God. Why omit the use of the sense of smell? This sense is indeed, to some extent, exercised by placing fragrant flowers upon our altars, but more fully and in closer agreement with the language of holy Scripture, by the sweet odours of burning incense. This principle has a double application, God-ward and manward; for God wills to be worshipped by mankind in a manner analogous to our human conceptions of Deity. He bids us think of Him and treat Him as One who hears our prayers, sees our works, touches us in the sacraments, tastes of (by partaking with us in) the holy Eucharist, and smells the savour of our sweet odours.
By the words, "Let my prayer be set forth in Thy sight as the incense," the inspired Psalmist shows that incense is symbolical of prayer; and many of the Scriptural references to incense make its use synonymous with worship. By the mention of incense in his description of the worship of God in heaven, S. John the Evangelist manifestly declares it to be symbolical, not merely of prayer and devotion but, of that which makes all our service acceptable to God, namely, the intercession and merits of Christ. The censing of persons and things, mystically applies to us, to our oblations, and to the place of sacrifice, the merits of our most holy Redeemer.
The use of incense, like that of all other things in public worship, ought to be after the "accustomed manner." Men are bound to worship God after the fashion of their own country. The Eastern mode may be deemed interesting and impressive, but we have no more right to adopt it than we have to use an Eastern Liturgy. For us, the accustomed manner is the mode which is now general in Western Christendom; and according to western rules, the use of incense should be confined to liturgical services which are accompanied with music, and are technically called solemn.