Why is Incense Used? by Fr Homer F Rogers
Once upon, a time, in a far away land, before the days of Air-wick and indoor plumbing, people's houses would get musty, and the odours of cooked cabbage and garlic would cling to the walls and curtains, and on damp days a crowded house might smell like the locker room of a gymnasium. Folks discovered, probably at first by accident, that if they would burn certain fragrant resins and gums, the smoke would sweeten the air and make life indoors much more pleasant.
However, since these aromatic resins and gums were rare and costly, they were saved for those occasions when company was coming. Thus it came to be that burning incense became a sign of somebody important coming to the house. You walk in, and smell incense and say, "Who is coming?"
Incense was burned in temples and all places of public and private worship in honor of the God who was to visit the temple. The Jews did this and the Christians took over the custom.
Incense is not used merely because it is pretty, or because it smells sweet, or because we like "high church" but rather because it assures us that when we gather together in His Name, God is in our midst.
It adds to our service an atmosphere of mystery - and well it might. For it signifies an invasion of the Eternal into time, of the Infinite All Holy into the midst of His people.
So when incense is offered, it should properly awe and impress us, with the terrifying fact of the imminent entrance of Him who flung the stars into space and who numbers the hairs of our heads, yet whose tender love is concerned with the sparrow's fall, who willed to be laid in a manger and nailed to a cross that you and I might know His love for all eternity.
Understanding its ancient meaning, as purification before the entrance of an important visitor, incense as the Church uses it is eloquent testimony and a vivid dramatization of the Church's most cherished beliefs and vital experiences: God's coming to us, really and actually, in our worship of God.
Extract from Why is Incense Used? by Fr Homer F Rogers [Project Canterbury]