Of Angels and Incense

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship planning of angels and incense
Angel and shepherds. James Tissot.
Public Domain.

"And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not..."

Fear... near panic-attack levels of fear, actually. Fear like you hear a bump in the night, and then you hear it bumping around, breaking things and cursing as it nears your door, and then you hear it opening your door. And then it's in your room.


It's the first human response to just about every appearance and approach of God or even of heavenly beings such as angels throughout the scriptures.


And then the words, "Fear not. Do not be afraid."

It turns out the use of incense in worship may be an analog to this "Fear... and fear not" response to the Holy.

We've known about the "Fear" side for decades. Though Clifford Guthrie may have been one of the first to document this with respect to incense and worship (in 2000), it has been well known that the smell of something burning sets off the alarm system of our brains, the amygdala. The smell of the smoke is all it takes to put on our brains into high alert, primed to flee. We don't even have to see it.

Of course, this is of great advantage to us. If we're sleeping and a fire starts near us, it is good that we are almost immediately wakened, put into high alert, and our bodies are automatically readied to run if we need to. Without this dramatic, immediate fear response many more of us would perish in fires.

But why would such "autonomic fear" be helpful to worshipers in religious rituals? Is it only to "put the fear of God" into us?

Yet, as we've seen from the biblical pattern, that initial fear is almost always met by another word from God or the angels themselves, "Fear not!"

One more recent study of the effects in mice of incesole acetate, one of the chemicals released in fairly high concentration when incense is burned, may give a fuller explanation. It turns out that incensole acetate is psychoactive, with nearly immediate and fairly potent anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects.

In other words, the burning smell says, "Fear."

And one of the products in that smoke says, at the very same time, a bit more loudly, and for a longer period of time, "Fear not."

And both without saying a single word, and probably without any conscious perception on our parts.

So the next time you see Christians or other religious communities using incense in worship, instead of thinking them a bit daft for burning things indoors, remember the angels. And let this sign of the presence of the Holy have its intended symbolic, and even neuro-pharmacological, effect.

Tip of the hat to David Allison who put me onto the more recent study!