For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among all nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. — Malachi 1:11
Since the Reformation, using incense in church has become a true badge of Catholicism in the West, even though its use is not discussed widely by the Reformers. Eastern Orthodox Christians simply take it for granted. John Calvin lumped it in with all kinds of other vain ceremonial trappings including “holy garments” and even “an altar” in his commentary on the Gospel of John. To Calvin, the worship “in spirit and in truth” that Jesus describes to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:23 has been completely obscured by popery, whose “shadows are not less thick than they formerly were under the Jewish religion.” To Calvin, religion is not about stuff.
Calvin is wrong. As Thomas Aquinas’s hymn Pange Lingua reminds us, “Types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here.” The new perfects the old, and worship in spirit and in truth is absolutely about stuff (old and new). It is not a break with Jewish ritual, but its fulfillment. We read in Exodus 30:7-8:
Aaron shall burn fragrant incense …. every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.
But you might object: Surely Hebrews 9 reminds us that Jesus’s perfect sacrifice lacked all of the earth-bound trappings of the traditional cult. Jesus did not go to the cross with Aaron’s rod or a golden urn. True, but neither does our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving kill Christ on the tree of Calvary. We re-enact the “one oblation of himself once offered,” and not (just) in our minds. We know that God is doing all the work of saving us, even as we ritualize his saving work with every glorious element of religion we can get our hands on. Jesus fills the sacramental universe. He does not destroy it.
Orthodoxy is not an idea, but a way of life, whose culmination on this side of the eschaton is the Holy Eucharist. God used stuff to communicate to Israel, and he uses stuff to communicate to the new Israel, which is the Church at worship. By biblical warrant, certain stuff cannot be traded out or omitted. Baptism has to happen in water and not sand. (The Didache, an ancient manual of Christian practice, suggests running water over stagnant water. And cold water is preferable to warm. Again…stuff matters!) The Lord’s body has to be bread and not a chicken drumstick. “Pizza and beer, the Lord is here” has no basis in the Bible or Christian tradition. He may be there, but we don’t know. At any rate, that is not how he set up the means of his perpetual memory at the Last Supper.
But incense is a little different. It remains a fringe element, relegated in practice to the lowest circle of the liturgical purgatory called adiaphora. It can be messy and makes people cough, and so it is easily dispensed with. It seems like a bridge too far, and herein lies a big mistake. If it is a bridge too far, it is the bridge that carries worship right over from earth into the heavenly realm. Sweet smelling smoke is a near guarantee that the worship space is set totally apart from any other place you go in your life. And if we admit, to Calvin’s dismay, that Christian worship is not at all a radical disconnect from ancient Jewish ritual but a continuation of it, then why of all things would we omit incense, even if we are not commanded to keep it? The book of Revelation (5:8 and 8:4) includes it in our eternal life: the “prayers of the saints.” Incense has a special place both in our spiritual ancestry and our spiritual destiny. We should have it in our spiritual present.
It is time to take it back, translating it from a defiant mark of preciosity to a ubiquitous and indispensable element of Christian living. Clergy who long to use it simply need to insist upon it even in small doses, building towards use each Sunday (with loving teaching preparing the way, of course). Almost all of our churches offer a variety of Sunday liturgies anyway — keeping a “smoke-free” service or two may help keep the peace in the parish. And seminarians and clergy who have never held a thurible need to seek out a mentor who can help them along. There may be no bigger obstacle to regular use of incense in the parish than clergy who use it clumsily.
Incense may not be a hill worth dying on, but it is at least a hill worth strategizing for. It is a shot to the gut of comfortable, consumer-friendly religion, and it may be just the tool God has provided to make his name great among the nations in our present age.
Turn and burn, brethren.
 Early Christian Fathers. Ed Cyril C. Richardson. (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 174.