The End of Frankincense?

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For most Christians, the word frankincense calls to mind the Three Magi who followed the Star of Bethlehem bearing gifts for the infant Jesus.  “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).

Two of these treasures, frankincense and myrrh, are resins produced by trees. They have been used in religious ceremonies as incense and offerings throughout history. Among the gifts that the Magi bore, frankincense and myrrh were worth more than the gold. Frankincense was and remains the most important ingredient in incense for religious purposes, especially in Judaism and Christianity. The Talmud specifies an eleven-ingredient recipe for incense used in the Temple, with frankincense as the main ingredient, and the early Church adopted similar complex recipes.

Ancient recipes for incense have come down to us today. When Jim Ware, the Thurifer at Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, walks down our aisles wafting delicious smoke, the main fragrance is frankincense, though there are many other ingredients that add to the richness of the smoke.

Frankincense is produced by small trees, known as Boswellia. Shepherds and farmers cut the bark and wait for the tree to release sticky sap that hardens into solid tears, which are harvested and sorted for quality. The Boswellia trees that produce frankincense cannot be found in the Holy Land, but in what is now Oman, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. The thriving trade routes from Oman and Yemen that brought Frankincense to the Holy Land are among the oldest trade routes in the world. Today, most frankincense comes from Somalia.

Boswellia trees are becoming rare, and many are now endangered.  Several scientists are now convinced that without concerted action, Boswellia will become extinct, and frankincense will no longer be available. The trees are only found in extremely dry shrub ecosystems where changes in agricultural practices, especially increased livestock density and more use of fire, are preventing the trees from reproducing. Over-tapping, removing too much resin, from the remaining trees is shortening their lives. Unlike many modern crop plants, frankincense comes from wild plants and is not yet cultivated to any great extent.

Reflecting on the decline of Boswellia and the loss of frankincense leads us to a larger consideration: We cannot consume the beneficence of God’s Creation without regard for the future. It is not simply a matter of preserving useful parts of nature for future generations.  My understanding, both as a Christian and a biologist, is that all of God’s creatures have a right to exist, and we therefore have an obligation to prevent their extinction wherever

Now that we understand the threats to Boswellia trees, it is very likely that we will take the steps necessary to ensure their future. Humans are actually pretty good at conserving what we care about.

One of God’s first instructions to us was to tend and keep the Garden (Genesis 2:15), that is to be good stewards of the Earth. Between climate change and habitat loss, we are pushing many species towards extinction. Many scientists consider that we are entering a period of mass extinction. But this is entirely preventable, if we dedicate ourselves, as individuals, families, and congregations, to stewardship of the Earth. I hope and trust that hundreds of years from now, thurifers will still be waving frankincense smoke in our faces.

Bosewllia sacra in Land of Frankincense UNESCO site, Oman. (source: Wikimedia)

Frankincense consists of “tears” of dried Boswellia sap