Using incense in worship is a meaningful and worshipful tradition with ancient Hebrew roots. In modern times, it is a tradition that the Episcopal Church shares only with Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, but not with other Protestant churches. Incense engages our senses in inescapable ways. The smoke we see rising from the burning incense is the physical representation of our prayers rising to God. The aroma we smell reminds us to live our lives as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Incense has been a part of worship in many cultures for thousands of years. It is mentioned in the book of Exodus and it was used copiously in the dedication of Solomon’s Temple about 900 B.C. In ancient days, it may have had a practical, fumigatory purpose, and as such it tends to be used as a symbol of purification. But as people saw the rising smoke, they also felt it symbolized their prayers rising to heaven, and the Hebrew people especially felt that the billowing smoke of incense represented the glory of God filling the house.
In our modern Christian worship, we use incense primarily to focus our attention, by symbolically purifying our intentions and our space. People, places and objects are “censed” to call attention to the importance of their upcoming function in the liturgy. We use it sparingly, and the thurible, or burner, is always brought into the church only long enough for its use, then immediately taken out.
If the incense bothers you, you may of course step out for a breath of fresh air, or move to another seat farther away from the thurible.