Why do some churches use incense?
At a previous church, I once had a parishioner joke that he would be offended if we were to use incense during a service because the only reason churches ever used incense in the first place was to cover up the smell of the unwashed masses that gathered together for Sunday services, before modern conveniences made showering daily a common practice. Though there is some truth to that, covering up unpleasant odors is not the main reason why incense was/is used during religious services.
In the scriptures, there are many examples of the use of incense. It was often burned by the Hebrew people as an offering to God (Exodus 30, 7-9; 1 Chronicles 6:49; 2 Chronicles 13:11), a tradition that Jewish people continued through Jesus’ time (Luke 1:9-10) and even now, and which Christians adopted as part of their own worship. But why offer incense to God? Well for one thing, it smells pleasant (depending upon who you ask). But the smoke of incense is also thought to be a great symbol of prayers being offered up to God, starting on our level and then ascending into the heavens. “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense,” the psalmist writes (Psalm 141:2), and the book of Revelation has multiple references to incense being related to the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4). More than being used in religious ceremonies simply because it smells nice, incense is burned because the smoke helps put one in a more heavenly mindset, the rising of the smoke reflecting the raising of our prayers to God.
So if a church ever uses incense, don’t be offended! It may not be a comment on your hygiene at all!