Liturgical images and movements that speak to experience

Incense Offerings

“Like burning incense, O LORD, let my prayers rise up to you.”  The Hebrew psalmist added the dimension of song to an already potent symbol.  The Christian Church has used this psalm for centuries to begin the four-week cycle of prayer known as the Liturgy of the Hours, a communal celebration intended to fulfill St. Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing.  So, whenever the people of God gather for prayer, particularly intercessory prayer, the use of incense is most appropriate. 

The movement of its ascension, however, carries with it more than our prayers.  The richness of this symbol lends itself to other ritual applications as well.  The sight and smell of it link us to our mystical past and transport us into a transcendent reality.  The way it permeates the air, the environment, our clothing and our bodies models how the Spirit of God permeates the whole of creation, renewing and sanctifying down to the bone.  Its burning exemplifies purification and self-emptying, while the resultant fragrance speaks of transformation and the fulfillment of purpose that is paradoxically realized through such diminishment.   

Experience with a particular variety of incense will help you to judge how much will be needed; use only enough to last the full duration of the ritual prayer.  Respiratory sensitivities, however, are rapidly increasing in contemporary society and liturgists must take care to ensure that the materials we use enhance worship, not distract from it. Consider incensing the worship space before anyone arrives for a given liturgy; the slightest hint of fragrance can set a particular tone for their arrival.  Advance notice of its use in a liturgy will enable those who are hypersensitive to sit on the periphery of the worship space.  Be particularly sensitive to the needs of cantors and choir members, minimizing the concentration around them.  If the ritual calls for moving the smoke through the assembly, consider using an incense bowl rather than a swinging thurible that would maximize its diffusion.  A stationary burner situated above shoulder-level in an open sanctuary will be visually effective; the scent should carry without being overpowering.

While the Christian tradition uses a wide variety of incense mixtures enabling each liturgical season to be set apart by its own unique scent, out of a spirit of hospitality many communities now use an all-ocassion variety that is non-allergenic.  Many people find the fumes generated by modern self-starting charcoals to be even more irritating than the incense itself, so care should be taken to light coals in a well ventilated space outside of the worship area.



Whenever I go on a retreat, as if eagerly awaiting a token of affection from a lover, I find myself expecting a treat from God.  Usually it’s some object found in nature––a unique stone, an interesting feather, an intricate flower or leaf, a deer’s discarded antler or a late turtle’s shell––some physical keepsake from the time we’ve spent together.  On one particular retreat, while reflecting upon the many gifts that were being showered upon me in that privileged place and time apart, a seemingly insignificant bit of creation grabbed my attention:  tree sap.  Pine sap in particular, the life-blood of the tree, glistening in the winter’s sun, jewel-like.  Jewel, indeed, when fossilized into amber; the sweetest of scents when burnt as incense…associations which led me to ask, “How could something that oozes from a wound become so beautiful?”

Reflecting on the wounds of my past, I went immediately to the first time I fell in love––the most gaping of wounds in that it was totally unrequited.  Here were the most intense feelings of love that I had ever experienced, and this young man couldn’t begin to understand my feelings for him, let alone return them, and even found them dark and threatening.  It was a weeping wound, literally, and out of the depths of despair I cried out, “What’s going on, Lord?!!” …but through the tears and questions about who I was and what I was feeling, I felt the love of God, tender and real and always there whether or not anyone else could ever return my love.  This faithful love assured me of my lovableness and the worthiness of the love that I had to give.  This faithful love founded my wholeness and holiness. 

The other great wound of my life was related to my discernment of a religious vocation.  After six years of journeying with a Franciscan community, the last two years in a vowed commitment, I was told that I “didn’t fit in,” and was asked to leave.  I was devastated; left was a gaping hole in my identity and sense of purpose.  But, after a long winter of numbness, the sap again rose within me––a sign of life and resilience—drawn up by the warmth of friends and the affirmation of colleagues.  Again the faithfulness of God’s purpose gave me purpose and assured me of the value of my gifts.  Again God’s faithfulness founded a clearer identity; a purer, sweeter oblation, holy and acceptable to God, my spiritual worship.  How could something oozing from a wound become so beautiful?  Grace works that way.

Incense can be a powerful symbol of our willingness to let go of those attachments of the heart that fail to satisfy.  As in the following ritual, its burning opens us up to healing, conversion and liberation.  The liturgical action encourages the physical participation of the assembly, whether it be used as an introductory penitential rite within the community’s regular Sunday worship or as part of a penance service.

Before the service, small cups are placed at the end of each pew, each containing a teaspoon of incense.  (Be aware of the scents used:  frankincense carries associations of gift-giving and adoration; flowery blends evoke a spirit of celebration and joy; sandalwood may be associated with Eastern meditation techniques.  Try a monastic blend which your community may associate with humility, penitence, the season of Lent, or the Rite of Christian Burial.)


In the quiet of our hearts,
let us now call to mind our frailty, our brokenness,
and those areas of our lives and of our world in need of liberation. 

All kneel for silent reflection.

As a symbol of our shared neediness,
we are each invited to take a pinch of incense
(from the little cup at the end of each pew)
to be offered up to the mercy of God.


The Leader walks among the gathered community, collecting their bits of incense into a single bowl, then kneels before the altar.  During this action, a chant may be sung to reflect a penitential mood, e.g., a familiar setting of  the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy); a response echoing a cantor or choir will keep attention on the ritual action rather than upon a written text.

The Liturgy moves directly into Psalm 141, during which the presider burns a portion of the collected incense, then rejoins the kneeling congregation.  Michael Joncas’ “Incense Psalm” is particularly appropriate, as its verses can be sung by a cantor, freeing the assembly to focus on the ascending incense. 

The introductory rites conclude with the Opening Prayer or Collect for the day.  The following prayer may also be used:

Good and gracious God,
through your faithful love have mercy on us and forgive us our sins. 
Transform the wounds and fears and brokenness we offer to you,
and awaken us to your liberating presence in the very midst of our lives,
that we may one day share fully in the glory of your Risen Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.  Amen.

(As an alternative ritual for larger assemblies, place containers of incense at the entrances of the worship space and have ministers of hospitality invite the people to take a pinch as they enter.  During the offertory the presider would invite the people to come forward in procession to deposit their incense into a common bowl in the sanctuary, from which he would take a representative sampling to burn.)



The ascension of smoke symbolizes transcendence and models the aspirations of the human heart and will.  It is, therefore, not surprising to find that burnt offerings are common to most cultural and religious traditions.  The following ritual (Michael J. Nicosia © 1992, 2006) draws on that common experience and, aided by the commingling nature of scent, draws the participants into a unity of focus, action and intent.

Any symbols of unity may be utilized in the materials and setting for this ritual.  The staging I usually prepare includes, in the center of the worship space, a large rock on which a lighted charcoal rests; its base should be flat to prevent its rocking.  Straddling the rock like a tripod is a three-branched stick; from its center is suspended a Native American medicine wheel.  Arranged around the rock in a wide circle (a universal symbol of oneness) are nine small bowls or shells (signifying the points of the Enneagram representing the totality of human personality and temperament); each contains a type of incense or other material traditionally burned as an oblation (e.g., monastic, Anglican and Orthodox blends; African herbal blends; Buddhist, Hindi and Shinto stick incenses; sandalwood, tobacco, sweet grass, sage, pine sap, cedar chips, et al).

The readings quoted here are only suggestions.  Select as many as carry the theme across culture and time; the number of people participating will also dictate the length of the ritual action.  Do some research and find some texts which particularly reflect the diversity of your community, while including others that will expand their vision of unity.  The prayers below invoke Christ; while the inclusion of Christian references in the readings serves to represent the breadth of human spirituality, for interfaith celebrations the principal prayers should address the divine in the most inclusive of images.


Most High and Glorious God, you encompass all within your being. 
Eternal Word, through you all things were made;
through you all is reconciled and transformed. 
Great Spirit, yours is the life energy which unites all that is
with all that was and all that will be. 

Enlighten us now, that we may become more aware
of our share in you who are All-in-all.

Each of the following cultural groupings is introduced with its respective percussion instrument; their use may not have direct correlation to the faith traditions, but should elicit a sence of cultural diversity.  Don't try to force associations with specific scents, as some traditions (e.g., Ba'hai, Judaism, Islam) do not have not have a modern practice of burnt offerings.

1.  NATIVE AMERICAN   (drums)

The medicine wheel is a symbol of wholeness in Native American spirituality––
the four directions, the four winds, the four seasons of the year, the four seasons of one’s life.  It speaks of the totality of Creation, the dignity of all life, and the integrity of each step of our journey.  We are part of the whole.

White Buffalo Calf Woman passed down these Lakota Instructions for Living:
“When one sits in the Hoop Of The People, one must be responsible because
All of Creation is related.  And the hurt of one is the hurt of all.  And the honor of one is the honor of all.  And whatever we do affects everything in the universe.”

2.  HINDU   (Hindi temple bells or cow bells)

Two hymns of the Shvetashvatara Upanishad describe the omnipresence of Brahman: 
“You are woman, you are man, you are boy and you are girl,
you are the shivering old man helped by stick,
you are born in the form of this world." (4.2)

"You are blue colored butterfly, green eyed parrot, lightning cloud,
you are the seasons, and seas, you are the one without any beginning,
you are omnipresent, all the worlds are born out of you.” (4.4)

In the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita, it is written:
“He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings,
and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye.”

3.  BUDDHIST   (singing bowl or finger cymbals)

In the Avatamsaka Sutra it is written:
“The mind, the Buddha, and living beings, these are not three different things.”

As the 3rd Zen Patriarch Sengtsan said:
“When the Ten Thousand Things are seen in their Oneness,
      we return to the Origin where we have always been.”

4.  ISLAMIC    (drum or camel bells)

In the Holy Koran, the Prophet Mohammed, blessed be his name,
wrote of Allah’s creative desire:

“And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth
and what He has spread forth in both of them of living beings;
and when He pleases He is all-powerful to gather them together.”  (42.29)

“O people!  Be careful of (your duty to) your Lord, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind) and spread from these two, many men and women; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, by Whom you demand one of another (your rights), and (to) the ties of relationship; surely Allah ever watches over you.” (4.1)

The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat once said:  “There can be hope only for a society which acts as one big family, not as many separate ones.”

The president of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights,
Dr. Azizah Al-Hibri, has said: 
“The minute we become an integrated whole, we look through the same eyes and we see a whole different world together.”

5.  BAHÁI   (gong)

Bahá'u'lláh, the Iranian founder of the Baha'i Faith,
encouraged his followers with these words:

“So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.”

“His central message for humanity in this day is one of unity and justice:
     The well-being of mankind, its peace and security,
        are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.’ 

“This is the prescription of God, the divine and all-knowing Physician, 
     for our ailing world.” 
(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh CXXXI)  

6.  AFRICAN   (drum)

Myopic absolutism can grow out of isolation, as this Ugandan proverb attests:
“The person who has not traveled widely 
     thinks his or her mother is the only cook (the best cook).” 

Conversely, many African proverbs tell of how there is strength in unity:
“Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it.”
“It takes a whole village to raise a child.”
“Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.”
“When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.”

7.  JEWISH   (sheep bells)

Rabban Shimon said, “The world stands on three things:
on truth, on justice and on peace.”

Rabbi Yehoshua said, “The evil eye, the evil urge, and hatred of one’s fellow creatures take one out of the world.”

It is recorded in the Talmud that “Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty
as though he [or she] had destroyed the entire world;
and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he [or she] had rescued the entire world.”

The psalmist sang:
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity.”  (133:1)

8.  CHRISTIAN   (chimes)

St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, wrote: 
“Make my joy complete by being of the same mind,
maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.”  (4:2)

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, wrote at the turn of the 1st Century of the Common Era:
“I venture to recommend an action that reflects the mind of God…. your justly respected clergy, who are a credit to God, are attuned to their bishop like the strings of a harp, and the result is a hymn of praise to Jesus Christ from the minds that are in unison, and the affections that are in harmony.  Pray, then, come join this choir, every one of you; let there be a whole symphony of minds in concert; take the tune all together from God, and sing aloud to the Father with one voice through Jesus Christ, so that He may hear you and know by your good works that you are indeed members of His Son’s Body.  A completely united front will help to keep you in constant communion with God.” (Letter to the Ephesians)

The 17th Century Christian-Zen poet, Angelus Silesius, wrote: 
“Love’s power to restore the broken shards into one whole
is the supreme attainment of the human soul.”

Saint Isaac the Syrian spoke of the merciful heart as one which burns with great compassion for all people, for every created thing.  Gripped by a strong and vehement mercy, a compassion without measure in the likeness of God, such a heart offers up prayer from the midst of all suffering, offers up prayer even for those who harm you and deny your truth.  (Homily 81)

Francis of Assisi told his brothers and sisters:  “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”

In the holy gospel according to John, Jesus prayed:
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one, as we are one.” (17:11b)

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu maintains:
“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

9.  WICCAN   (drum)

The following Wiccan prayer was offered by Bryan Lankford
at 2003 National Day of Prayer Breakfast in Dallas:

“Goddess of the Earth, God of rebirth, we pray for a world where basic respect is not something given because we feel someone has earned it but because everyone is deserving of respect.

“Each of us is essential to the unfolding of life and the order of the world.

“No one is born to a meaningless existence; there is no one who is not needed and who does not have a purpose.

“Prejudices born of fear and misunderstanding cause many people to view those who are different with suspicion.  We flee from the unknown because it is often easier to condemn than to learn.

“We pray that understanding and respect replace fear and mistrust.  We pray for a day when everyone, regardless of race, religion or cultural background, is seen and respected for the Divine soul that is common to each of us.

“When we are seen as Divine souls which wear different bodies, we are the same,
and differences in race, education, religion, or culture no longer matter.

“There is no one who is better than anyone else because all are equal in the eyes of the Divine.

“We pray that we will begin to see the world with divine eyes that respect all people.  So may it be.”

(Quiet Reflection)


Before us is a sampling of herbs and incense used in various traditions and cultures as burnt oblations.  As we intercede for the brokenness within our lives, our church and our world, we place these offerings upon the coal, that they may rise up, mingling and becoming one petition, one voice before the one God who is over all and in all.

At the conclusion of the Ritual Offering, the Leader continues:

Let us now add to these petitions the acknowledgment of our oneness in relationship to our God:  Our Father. . .


Most High and Glorious God, who calls us to integration and completeness, use us as ministers of your grace which heals brokenness, fragmentation and division.  May our hearts and minds always discern the challenge of your unifying Spirit within us, within your people, within your creation.  This we ask through the Atonement of your Son, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.


May the Lord bless us X and keep us, whole and holy, and bring us to everlasting life.  Amen.

(Alternative:  A Celtic cross can be substituted for the medicine wheel in this ritual, with the following alteration in the text of READING 3:  “The Celtic cross is a pre-Christian symbol of wholeness in Celtic spirituality –– the four directions, the four winds, the four seasons of the year, the four seasons of ones’ life.  It speaks of the totality of Creation, the dignity of all life, and the integrity of each step of our journey.  We are part of the whole.”  It would be important to include this explanation as one of the readings, helping the participants to see beyond the Christian imagery which has been projected onto this image.)



Whether masking body odors or the smell of a rapidly decomposing corpse in a poorly ventilated worship space on a hot summer’s day, incense had its utilitarian uses in the past.  Yet even this seemingly mundane application points to another characteristic of this substance and its use that has potent symbol value:  it has the power to transform the foul into something fair.  By extending this basic human experience into the realm of spirituality, various traditions have used burnt offerings to purify and bless.  Using a smudge stick (a bundle of sage, sweet grass, tobacco or other dried herbs), shamanistic rituals cleanse an object or a space (always toward the four cardinal directions) before its ritual use.  Incense is used in many faith traditions to move our conscious appreciation of an object or person from the mundane to the sacred.  The Roman, Orthodox and Anglican Churches celebrate this transformation in their liturgies, reverencing with incense anything that is believed to be a symbol of Christ’s presence and a vehicle of his grace –– the Scriptures, the paschal candle, the holy oils and sacred chrism, the altar, the bread and wine (before and after their consecration), the presiding priest, the worshiping assembly.    

The following ritual draws upon some basic Hebrew texts associated with purification (Proverbs 16:2-3; Isaiah 6:6-7).  It can be used as a simple blessing of dedication or as a ceremonial prayer of cleansing after an experience of defilement.

Our ways may be pure in our own eyes,
but it is the LORD who proves the spirit. 
Let us entrust our works to the LORD, that our plans may succeed.

Incense is place on the burning coal (or the smudge stick is set ablaze, then extinguished but allowed to smolder).  The Leader continues:

Almighty God, holy and exalted,
as the lips of your prophet Isaiah were touched by
a burning coal from your altar and made worthy for your service,
so reach down and touch this [your servant/your people/
object/space/moment in time]

and purge [me/him/her/us/it] of all sin and defilement.
Permeated by your presence, consecrate [me/him/her/us/it]
to your purpose and our good use.

Using a broad feather or hand, the smoke is fanned in the direction of the object to be purified/blessed.  When  blessing a space, begin by facing North; bow reverently before and after the incensing, then turn East, South and West consecutively, repeating the ritual.

A brief moment of silent reflection follows, during which time the participants rest in the presence of God and the lingering scent of the offering.  The ritual concludes with an expression of thanks and praise:

Good and gracious God, you created all that is and acknowledged its goodness as a reflection of your own.  We thank you for your enduring
mercy and care as you continually reclaim creation for your divine purpose, re-founding it as a vehicle of your grace and a witness to your redeeming love.  Glory to you, Source of All-being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever.  Amen.



The following Outdoor Offering (Michael J. Nicosia © 1999) can be recited by the presider or a lector during the burning of incense, bringing us into a greater awareness of the prayer that is continually spoken all around us in nature.  Though it was originally composed as a private outdoor offering, its familiar imagery can lead a worshiping community into contemplative prayer.

O Lord God of the Skies
         unending in your breadth
         continually embracing Mother Earth
                 as you glide across her breast
Refreshing      soothing      cooling

With arms up-stretched
         the trees penetrate your being
         caressed by your breath
In you the birds delight

Accept my thoughts
         with the burning of these herbs
They are of the earth
                 as am I

Burn us to nothingness
         we become this fragrant smoke
                 into the air
                                   becoming one with you



The enveloping nature of incense’s scent and smoke is invoked in the following ritual of blessing.  It was designed for a celebration of Holy Union of two men who wanted to include their children from previous marriages in the ceremony.  Throughout the liturgy, images of a sacred garden were invoked in reference to their family.


As a vine wraps its supple shoots
around the closest branch to support its climb,
so let these rings be a sign of the intertwining of your lives
and the tender embrace of your mutual love. 
May this commitment steady you in the wind
and support the weight of your fruitfulness.


The couple is joined by their children.  The family holds hands.

Lord of heaven, look down and see!  Visit the vine you have planted,
the vineyard you have nurtured and made strong for your purpose.
These branches joined have broken down the wall that confined them,
that all may see the fruit of their love and the affirmation of your blessing.

The assisting minister places incense on prelit coal, and encircles the family while the presider says:

As a pillar of cloud separated your people from their oppressors’ advance,
surround these your servants with your grace,
that you yourself may be their powerful protection and their strong support,
a screen from the winds of ignorance and fear,
a bulwark against any who would pollute or devour the work of your hands.

CHILD #1: 
As vines nurtured in this sacred grove,
we sink our roots deeply into the soil of your love.

CHILD #2: 
As vines grafted together by your design,
we offer you our love and support.

We commit our hands to the work ahead
of tending what has been planted and sharing the blessing of its bounty.

“How good and how pleasant it is for families to dwell together in unity.”