I love walking into a Catholic church after incense has been used, light streaming through stained glass windows, the tabernacle light glowing and that sacred smell lingering in the air. These elements all help me to focus as I pray.
Of course - I know, I know - incense does seem to bother the eyes and noses of some of the faithful more than others. That is true. Even so (not to sound insensitive) but I can hardly imagine that being sufficient reason for the Catholic Church to stop using incense altogether.
Anyway, it hasn’t totally stopped using incense, but it does seem a rare occasion these days in many churches. Unless I am mistaken, church-use worthy incenses have been developed that are more kind to the senses than traditional varieties.
Growing up, I was an altar boy at a small country parish, and I was in charge of getting the incense burning properly, a task probably made simpler by the development of rapid lighting charcoal. Some of my fondest memories of my duties in our small parish Church were of preparing the thurible (or incenser), the burning vessel for incense, at Christmas Eve Masses.
In my heart, incense belongs to Christmas Eve night above all other times. And I don’t say that without good reason. It’s a funny thing how we often take words in the English language for granted and sometimes fail to note how many of the words we use are abbreviations or shortenings of other words that we sometimes connote in entirely different manners at times. Such is the case with our topic at hand - incense.
How many of you realize that Church incense is actually frankincense? As in, the frank-incense like unto that given by one of the adoring Magi to the Christ Child? When I was still in possession of my Catholic goods and bookstore, a time I look back upon very fondly indeed, I sold products from a wonderful new company that sold gift sets of water globes containing authentic gold flakes, frankincense and myrrh in exotic and ancient looking boxes to represent the original gifts of Christmas. The company has now expanded to also include nativity sets with three king figures holding little boxes containing, correspondingly, gold flakes in a water globe, frankincense and myrrh.
Authentic pieces of frankincense are fascinating to behold, as they look like little stones. It is these frankincense pebbles that are crushed, powdered and burned as our “incense”. Incense is not a “rock” however, but the hardened resin or gum of a variety of plants and trees in the Eastern and tropical world. More specifically, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that incense in ancient days came from two trees of the Teribinthian family: Boswellia sacra, found in Arabia, and Boswellia papyrifera, found in India.
Certainly, incense smells otherworldly and holy, even if it does happen to burn some people’s noses. Incense is one of those distinctive marks that really sets Catholic Christianity apart in many ways. When people refer back to the Church before the Second Vatican Council, you often hear reference to the “smells and bells” of this period of the Church’s history. Perhaps many priests and many local parishes do not use incense as often as they could, and in a time when the sacredness of the Mass is lost on many, incense would be one means of bringing back a sense of reverence, especially considering the many allowable opportunities in the course of the Mass when it is could be used. After all, incense can be administered at any Mass at the entrance procession, at the beginning of Mass around the altar and Cross, at the Gospel procession and reading of the Gospel, after the offertory upon the bread, chalice on the altar, upon the altar and Cross itself, when the Host and Chalice are shown after the consecration, and even the People of God and the priest can be incensed, reminding us that we are members of the Body of Christ, that our bodies are indeed the temple of the Holy Spirit; each human person is a gift of God of profound value.
The priest has a special place acting in the Person of Christ, bringing Jesus to us. There are of course some other occasions in which incense may also be used, like at morning and evening prayer, and of course at the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and in processions of the Blessed Sacrament to name some significant examples. In any case, I think my point becomes more clear: It seems that too often, inside of the Mass, incense is only used on high Holy days (like Easter and Christmas), but not nearly often enough at other Masses, in my humble opinion. Every Mass is far from ordinary, every Mass is extraordinary! Incense helps drive that fact home for us, body, mind, and soul.
Incensation is not a pointless, superstitious activity. True, pagan cultures have commonly used it, as did Judaism. But Christianity always has seen fit to redeem those things that were good, true, and beautiful among other religions, and incense is among them.
So is incense biblical? Again, we know that it (frankincense) was a gift to the Christ Child, a gesture that is widely viewed as an acknowledgment of His divinity since Eastern cultures saw incense as a symbol for the divine. We see other references to it in both the Old and New Testament.
Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” - Psalm 141:2
In the Levitical priesthood, the evening sacrifice transpired around 3:00 p.m. Our Lord’s definitive sacrifice on the Cross culminated in his death at around 3:00 p.m. when his arms and hands were lifted high and outstretched. In the Mass, His once-for-all sacrifice is again made present, and incense rises forth to the Lord in the course of the Mass. Revelation observes:
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God. - Revelation 8: 3-4
It is noteworthy here that the mysterious and wondrous Book of Revelation is of a much greater breadth and depth than many realize, since within its pages we also see depicted the Catholic Mass. For a great analysis of this fact, please read Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass As Heaven On Earth which demonstrates how the Book of Revelation shows forth the splendor of the Holy Sacrifice Of The Mass.
Human persons are not angels. Since we are not pure angelic spirits, the material world can, and is meant, to draw us towards God, a fact that culminated in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ our Lord, the Second Person of The Trinity.
Incense helps us to meditate and focus on the fact that the Mass is Heaven on Earth, for at Mass we meet the Word of God first in the Scripture readings and Gospel, then peaking with the Eucharist. Incense brings home to us the fact that something special is happening at the various points of the Mass. Within the Mass, as the Body of Christ, our prayers are rising to God as does the incense that is burning in the censer. When the powdery incense touches the hot orange coals, they are transformed into an aromatic cloud that rises up towards Heaven along with our yearning hearts that seek to see the face of God, that we might live.
The smoldering incense can remind us of a burning desire to be with God and to bring him glory in all ways, like unto the fire of the Holy Spirit filling us, renewing us, transforming us, urging us on towards our Lord, its sweet fragrance a symbol of the virtuous life. As we rise up out of our pews, the Communion line ends with the hands of the priest where we receive Jesus in all the glory of his True Real Presence, under the mere appearance of bread and wine, communing with and embracing intimately the very same God whom the incense had symbolically ascended towards.
And may our spirits, like incense, always reach heavenward to be with our Lord.