The Frankincense Tree, One of the Magi’s Gifts to Jesus, is in Danger of Extinction

It’s the classic holiday scene: the church Christmas pageant, children dressed up as donkeys and camels and sheep, Mary and Joseph reclining in the makeshift stable, reminding the congregation of the birth of Christ. And what Christmas pageant would be complete without the entrance of the three wise men, bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Jesus?

Anjanette Decarlo, chief sustainability scientist at the Aromatic Plant Research Center and director of the Save Frankincense initiative, says that there’s a hidden layer to the story of the wise men’s gifts. “They brought frankincense to baby Jesus for a reason,” she said. “They knew there was really high child mortality in these days, and these were the most potent medicines known, frankincense, and myrrh. Talk about a clinical trial!”

Frankincense has been prized since ancient times as a potential panacea, and today it’s being used in everything from skin-care products to cancer treatments. But the frankincense tree is in peril, according to Decarlo and a recent study in Nature Sustainability by leading frankincense researcher Frans Bongers. The increasing popularity of frankincense products (essential oil in particular) has left many of the world’s frankincense trees dangerously overtapped. “We loved frankincense for 5,000 years,” Decarlo said. “With the growing world population and a real desire to use natural products and natural medications that are effective, we love it so much that we might love it to death.”

Decarlo first encountered the frankincense tree eight years ago on a research trip to Somalia. She returned in 2016 after the boom of the essential oil industry— which is particularly supported by Christians. She was stunned by the frankincense trees’ steep and sudden decline, caused by mismanagement and overtapping due to increased demand. “What was happening on the ground shocked me and rocked me to the core,” she said, so much so that she walked away from a coveted faculty position at the University of Vermont to dedicate herself to frankincense conservation full time. “After a lot of deep prayer, I just kept coming back to wanting to go back to my frankincense work again.” She said the trees she’s seen in Somalia and elsewhere are currently in dire condition.

Were the frankincense tree to go extinct, not only would the world lose its aromatic and medicinal benefits, but some forms of Christian worship would have to be altered. In the form of liturgical incense, frankincense has played a key role in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Anglican and Lutheran worship services.

Frankincense is also part of the livelihood of the Orthodox monks of Holy Cross Monastery in Wayne, West Virginia, who manufacture incense and sell it to Christians around the world. Father Basil, a resident monk, has been assisting with the manufacture of incense at the monastery for several years, a process that involves procuring pure frankincense resin from Ethiopia. “We take that raw frankincense, which is essentially an aromatic tree sap, grind it to a powder, and add fragrant oils to it,” Basil said. “That’s what gives it a particular smell.” For those who have never smelled frankincense, Basil described it as somewhere between a pine and citrus scent.

The use of incense hearkens back to the Old Testament, when the Israelites are commanded to offer incense to God, and it is also referenced in the Psalms (141:2). In Orthodox worship, frankincense-based incense is used in nearly every worship service in a process called “censing.” “There’s always at least one censing during the service and sometimes several,” said Basil, “where the priest or deacon will go around and cense the altar, the icons on the walls, and also the people and the church.” Some Orthodox Christians use incense in their homes as well.

Basil said that if frankincense were to become increasingly rare, it would make the manufacture of incense difficult. “It might require some inventiveness on the part of suppliers,” he said. “It’s such an integral part of Orthodox worship that it’s something that’s very much worth preserving.”

Derek Hatch, professor of Christian studies at Howard Payne University, said incense is also referenced in the New Testament: first in the book of Luke, when Zechariah offers incense at the altar and is told his wife will bear a son (1:8–17), and then, when it is described as going up before God “with the prayers of God’s people” (8:4).

Still, the use of incense is very rare for those in evangelical traditions, a casualty of the Reformation. “It’s not really an element of our worship that would disappear” if frankincense became rare, Hatch said, though he has noted that in the last two decades, some evangelical churches are incorporating elements like incense and visual art to make worship a multisensory experience, partly under the influence of the late Wheaton College professor Robert Webber.

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Source: Christianity Today

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