The Fragrant Offering: Exploring the Use of Frankincense in Christianity

Written by: Richard John



Time to read 5 min

Frankincense, with its warm, earthy aroma, has captivated humanity for millennia. More than just a pleasant fragrance, this precious resin holds a significant place in religious traditions, particularly Christianity. From its ancient origins to its enduring presence in modern worship practices, frankincense carries a rich tapestry of history, symbolism, and spiritual meaning. This comprehensive exploration delves into the multifaceted use of frankincense in Christianity, examining its:

  • Historical Significance: Tracing its journey from ancient offerings to its symbolic use in the early church.
  • Biblical References: Unveiling the stories and meanings associated with frankincense in the Bible.
  • Symbolism in Worship: Understanding how frankincense signifies prayer, purification, and divine presence.
  • Variations in Use Across Christian Denominations: Exploring how different denominations incorporate frankincense into their worship practices.
  • Practical Considerations: Offering guidance on incorporating frankincense into Christian worship for individuals and communities.

By delving into the rich history and symbolism of frankincense, we gain a deeper appreciation for its enduring role in enriching Christian worship experiences.

A Journey Through Time: The Historical Significance of Frankincense

Frankincense boasts a long and fascinating history, predating Christianity by thousands of years.

  • Ancient Uses:

    • Archaeological evidence suggests that frankincense was prized in ancient civilizations like Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Arabia as early as 3000 BC.
    • Used in religious ceremonies, medicinal practices, and as a valuable commodity, frankincense held significant cultural and economic importance.
    • Texts from ancient Egypt reference the use of frankincense in temple rituals, embalming practices, and offerings to deities.
  • Frankincense on the Trade Routes:

    • The resin was harvested from Boswellia trees, primarily found in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.
    • Trade routes like the "frankincense trail" facilitated the transport of this precious resin across vast distances.
    • This network of trade routes connected civilizations and facilitated the exchange of not only goods but also cultural and religious practices.
  • Frankincense in the Bible:

    • The Bible mentions frankincense in several contexts, suggesting its widespread use and symbolic value in the ancient world.
    • We see references to frankincense in the book of Exodus, where it is included in the recipe for the holy anointing oil used in the consecration of priests and the tabernacle (Exodus 30:34).
    • Additionally, frankincense is mentioned as part of the daily and special offerings prescribed in the book of Leviticus (Leviticus 2:1, 16; 24:7).

These historical references paint a picture of frankincense as a valuable commodity associated with religious practices and divine offerings. The connection between frankincense and the sacred continues into the early Christian era.

The Gift of the Magi: Frankincense in the Nativity Story

Perhaps the most iconic reference to frankincense in Christianity is its inclusion in the story of the Nativity.

  • The Three Wise Men:

    • The Gospel of Matthew describes three wise men, or magi, from the East who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Jesus (Matthew 2:11).
    • While the specific identities of the magi remain shrouded in mystery, their gifts hold significant symbolic meaning.
  • Frankincense: A Sign of Divinity:

    • Frankincense was a rare and valuable commodity, often associated with royalty and divinity in the ancient world.
    • By offering frankincense, the magi may have been recognizing Jesus' divine nature and status as a king.

This association with divinity extends beyond the Nativity story. In the book of Exodus, God instructs Moses on the creation of the holy anointing oil, a sacred mixture that included frankincense (Exodus 30:34). This further emphasizes the connection between frankincense and the divine in Jewish and Christian traditions.

The Symbolism of Smoke: Frankincense in Christian Worship

The use of frankincense in Christian worship extends beyond the literal offering of the resin. The smoke produced when frankincense is burned carries powerful symbolic meaning:

  • Ascending Prayer:

    • The rising smoke of frankincense is often seen as a symbol of prayers ascending to God.
    • This visual representation reinforces the concept of offering one's petitions and praises to the divine realm.
    • In some Christian traditions, prayers may be offered aloud or silently while the incense is burning, further emphasizing the connection between the fragrant smoke and communication with God.
  • Purification and Cleansing:

    • The fragrant smoke of frankincense can also symbolize purification and cleansing.
    • In some Christian traditions, it is used to cleanse the worship space before a service or ceremony.
    • This practice may harken back to ancient beliefs about the purifying properties of incense smoke, driving away evil spirits and creating a sacred atmosphere.
  • Divine Presence:

    • The pleasant aroma of frankincense can evoke a sense of peace and serenity.
    • In this way, it can represent the presence of the Holy Spirit within the worship space.
    • The fragrance can heighten the focus and devotion of worshippers, creating a more conducive environment for prayer and reflection.

These symbolic associations elevate the use of frankincense beyond a mere pleasant fragrance, imbuing it with spiritual significance in Christian worship practices.

Variations in Use Across Christian Denominations

The use of frankincense varies across different Christian denominations, reflecting diverse liturgical traditions and interpretations.

  • Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy:

    • In these traditions, frankincense is used more extensively in worship ceremonies.
    • It may be used during processions, blessings, the veneration of icons, and especially during the celebration of the Eucharist.
    • The thurible, a special censer used for burning incense, is a prominent symbol in these traditions.
  • Protestant Denominations:

    • Protestant denominations generally have a less prominent role for frankincense in worship services.
    • Some may use it occasionally during special services or celebrations, while others may not use it at all.
    • This may be due to a focus on simplicity in worship or a different understanding of the role of incense in Christian practice.

Modern Considerations and Practicalities

While the use of frankincense can enrich Christian worship experiences, some practical considerations need to be addressed:

  • Safety and Allergies:

    • Burning frankincense can irritate the respiratory system of some individuals.
    • It's important to ensure proper ventilation in the worship space and be mindful of any allergies among worshippers.
  • Sourcing Frankincense:

    • Look for ethically sourced and high-quality frankincense from reputable vendors.
    • This ensures the sustainability of the Boswellia trees and supports responsible harvesting practices.
  • Forms of Frankincense:

    • Frankincense is available in various forms, including loose resin, incense sticks, and essential oils.
    • The choice will depend on the specific use and desired effect. For liturgical purposes, loose resin burned in a thurible is the traditional method.
  • Incorporating Frankincense into Personal Worship:

    • Individuals can also incorporate frankincense into their personal prayer practices.
    • Burning a small amount of frankincense during prayer time can create a focused and meditative atmosphere.

By understanding the history, symbolism, and practical considerations surrounding frankincense, Christian individuals and communities can decide if and how to incorporate it into their worship practices. This fragrant offering has the potential to deepen the spiritual experience and connect worshippers to a rich tradition of symbolic meaning.

Conclusion: The Enduring Allure of Frankincense

Frankincense transcends its physical form as a resin, becoming a powerful symbol that connects the past, present, and future of Christian worship. It serves as a tangible reminder of the sacred narratives, the reverence for the divine, and the importance of prayer. By delving into the multifaceted world of frankincense, we gain a richer appreciation for its enduring role in enriching Christian faith and enriching worship experiences across denominations and cultures. The fragrant smoke of frankincense continues to rise, carrying prayers, symbolizing purification, and evoking a sense of the divine presence, reminding us of the enduring power of this ancient offering.