Incense – A Long History
Incense has been used in sacred worship for over five thousand years. Long before Christian worship began burning fragrant aromas in liturgy, the Egyptians began using incense in a religious way during the Fifth Dynasty, between 2494 and 2345 BC. Many Asiatic religions have used incense for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
In Judaism, incense is mentioned in the Book of Exodus, especially during the time of the Tabernacle, and all throughout the Old Testament books. When worship was centralized to the Temple, during the First and Second Temple period, incense was vital to the priestly Temple liturgy in Judaism.
During the time that the Israelites were wandering around the desert for forty years, for example, a pillar of fire and smoke would land in a certain place. This showed the presence of God and told the people where to erect the Tabernacle. Then, at a certain point, the pillar of fire and smoke would pick up and move to another location. This is a powerful and poignant example of incense and how it can draw our attention.
Incense in Christian Worship
Since the beginning of Christian worship, the smoke of burning incense has been seen as prayers rising to heaven. This is an outward sign of an invisible reality; it is a sacramental, like holy water. The Psalmist proclaims: “Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight: the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice (Ps. 141:2).” Likewise, St. John says that the incense symbolizes the prayer of the saints in heaven. The “golden bowl full of incense (Rv. 5:8)” is “the prayers of the saints (Rv. 8:3)” which is directed to the altar of God.
What is Incense?
Incense is produced from the resin of trees, of various kinds. It can sometimes be mixed with other fragrant pieces of plants. For example, frankincense comes from the Boswellia tree. Incense should smell sweet or floral when burned. The resin or mixture is placed with a small spoon onto lit charcoal in a container called a thurible. Thuribles comes in many shapes and sizes, but they are designed to have increased airflow and puff the smoke up into the air when used.
The thurible is swung during the Sacred Liturgy or other rites in order to draw our hearts and minds to certain realities in the Church. The things which are incensed are always symbolic or sacramental of Christ. All the following are incensed during Holy Mass: the altar, the bread and wine offered, the consecrated Eucharist, the Gospel before its proclamation, the Paschal Candle, the Crucifix, icons, and even the body of a deceased person at a funeral.
When is Incense Used at Mass?
In the Roman Missal, incense may be used 1) at the entrance procession, 2) at the beginning of Mass, to incense the altar, 3) at the procession and proclamation of the Gospel, 4) at the offertory, to incense the offerings, altar, priest and people, and 5) at the elevation of the sacred Host and chalice of Precious Blood at the time of consecration.
When the Altar, Crucifix, Paschal Candle, Eucharist, and Book of the Gospels is incensed, the thurible is swung towards the object three times in groups of three. People are also incensed. First, the priest, acting in the Person of Christ the Head is incensed two times three. This means that the thurible is swung towards him three times in groups of two. This is symbolic of the presence of the High Priest, Christ, acting through the ministerial priest. The thurible is always swung three times to represent the three Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then, the people stand and they, acting in their priesthood of the baptized, are incense one times three.
So, things representing Christ sacramentally are three times three, the priest is three times two, and the people are incensed three times one. This shows the hierarchy of Christ’s true presence at Mass, present in the Sacraments, in sacramentals, in the clergy, and in the laity.
Making the Case for Incense
Incense has been used in worship for thousands of years. It is a simple way to engage another one of our senses. In our worship of God, the incense engages the senses of sight and smell. We are human beings with body and soul and so God has given us this tool to draw in even our senses and elevate them to Him.
Incense smells fantastic. If it does not, then your church needs to invest in a newer batch of resin (incense does go bad) or they need to get a different supplier. It should smell sweet or floral and should not exacerbate the allergies of those present. There are many people who claim that they are allergic to incense. In my experience, this is rarely the case (though, of course, it is a reality for some). Usually, it is just a normal reaction to bad incense. So, get the good stuff!
Especially for the clergy, incense can get in the eyes and cloud the vision. This reminds us that we do not see God as clearly as we might think, here on Earth. There is always more to learn. This was something on which Pope Benedict XVI spoke well.
By utilizing incense, we are not only tapping into our tradition and patrimony, but we are also giving glory to God. The incense reminds us of Christ’s true presence in so many ways in the Sacred Liturgy and helps us refocus and draw back our attention to Him. The aim to be considered above all else by the Second Vatican Council was the full, conscious, and actual participation in the Liturgy (cf. SC 14). Sacramentals like incense are meant to draw us into the Sacred Action and help us participate more freely.