Tuesday, December 9


The Surprising Christian Antiquity of Incense

"Incense as a perfume was used extensively by the Greeks and Romans. It was a common object of sacrifice to both pagans and Jews (Lev. xxi, 6; Lk. i, 9-11 etc.). Tertullian mentions its use by Christians in ordinary life. As a religious symbol it was used at tombs in the catacombs. The earliest reference to its liturgical use is in Origen [...] unless this passage be merely metaphorical. At first incense was used only in processions. Incense carried before some great person as a sign of honor was a familiar sight in the first centuries. It was carried before consuls; so Christians, with the development of the idea of ritual splendor, it was carried before their bishop. From that to incensing persons it is but a step. As it was swung before a bishop in procession, so it naturally would be waved before him at his throne. Then [...] it would be applied symbolically to things, especially to the altar, throne and type of Christ. Moreover the Bible plainly suggested its use. Not only the Old Testament, but Lk. i, 9, the incense offered by the Wise Men (Mt. ii, 11), and the incense at the heavenly altar in Apoc. viii, 3-5 made its use, as soon as Christian worship began to be adorned with symbolic ceremonies, inevitable. Of all such symbolic ceremonies, the use of incense is perhaps the oldest and the most wide-spread.

"St. Ambrose (+397) seems to be the first to mention the practice of incensing the Christian altar. [...]"

--Adrian Fortescue, The Mass, 1912, pp. 228-29.

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