The United Benefice of Kinsley with Wragby
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Let my prayer rise before you as incense
the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice
Psalm 141


Frankincense (frank-incense, literally “pure incense”) is the resin of a bush found in the middle-east.  It is used as an incense in worship either on its own, or composed with other resins and oils.  It was one of the gifts brought by the Magi to Jesus to signify his Divinity.


Myrrh is not strictly an incense.  Myrrh is also a resin, its oil is used as a perfume and the resin as an antiseptic and for embalming.  It was one of the gifts brought by the Magi to Jesus as a pointer to the suffering to come.

Western incense

Western incense is generally small granules of various resins, including frankincense.  Most ecclesiastical suppliers will have a variety of different blends in stock.

Orthodox incense

Orthodox incense is made from frankincense to which essential oils are added.  It comes in small pellets and often has a strongly floral fragrance.

Incense made by a religious community is made as part of the discipline of the house, the brothers or sisters will be praying as they make the incense – sometimes the Jesus Prayer, sometimes for those who will eventually use it.

Burning incense informally

The easiest way to burn incense informally is using charcoal in a bowl.  Charcoal obviously gets very hot when it burns so something heat-resistant is called for.  It is wise to put an inch or two of sand in the bottom of the bowl then the charcoal, and to stand the bowl on something that won’t be damaged by heat (eg not a varnished table).

Commercially available charcoal used for incense lights easily.  Light a candle or taper and hold the charcoal in the flame (using tongs) until the charcoal starts to “fizz”.  Sparks will run over the surface of the charcoal.  When the fizzing starts pop the charcoal onto the sand.

After a while, around 5 minutes, parts of the charcoal will have become grey with ash and the charcoal is ready to use.

Put incense directly onto the charcoal using a small spoon.

Because charcoal takes some time to light, and it could go wrong and fail to light first time, it is wise to start lighting it 10-15 minutes before the service is due to start.

Charcoal burns for about 30 minutes which is enough for an office.  If incense is needed over a longer period then have someone pop another (unlit) piece of charcoal into the bowl so as to overlap the original lit one say 15 minutes into the service (at the beginning of the sermon?).

Suggested points for use of incense

At a morning office, a little incense might be burning at the beginning of the office, with more added at the Gospel Canticle (Benedictus).

At an evening office, incense may be used near the beginning (psalm 141) and then more added at the Gospel Canticle (Magnificat).

At the Eucharist, a little may be used at the beginning, some at the Gospel and then at the Presentation of the Gifts ready for the Eucharistic Prayer.


Copyright © 2005-8, Fr John Hadjioannou