I love incense. In fact, I love it a lot, and I think it should be used in far more parishes far more frequently.
The use of incense has a long and interesting history, especially within Judaism. In the Old Testament, it is recorded that incense was included in thanksgiving offerings (Numbers 7:13-17). Also, Moses was instructed by God to build a golden altar for the burning of incense and “perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations” was encouraged (Exodus 30:1-10). God also forbade the secular use of some incense, demanding that it only be used for holy purposes (Exodus 30:34-37).
Now, why should we take into account ancient Jewish practices? Because, in this instance, they are plainly recorded within the Old Testament.
It is important to remember that many members of the very early Church originally saw themselves as largely in conformity with Judaism and the Law, only differing in their acceptance of Christ as the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). It was not until the Jewish authorities made clear that they would never truly accept Christ in the way Christians understand Him that Christianity broke off as its own, entirely separate religion.
As for when the use of incense was adopted by the Church, we are uncertain. From this article of the Catholic Encyclopedia:
“When, exactly, incense was introduced into the religious services of the Church it is not easy to say. During the first four centuries there is no evidence for its use. Still, its common employment in the Temple and the references to it in the New Testament (cf. Luke 1:10 ; Revelation 8:3-5 ) would suggest an early familiarity with it in Christian worship . The earliest authentic reference to its use in the service of the Church is found in Pseudo-Dionysius (“De Hier. Ecc.”, III, 2). The Liturgies of Sts. James and Mark — which in their present form are not older than the fifth century — refer to its use at the Sacred Mysteries. A Roman Ordo of the seventh century mentions that it was used in the procession of the bishop to the altar and on Good Friday (cf. “Ordo Romanus VIII” of St. Amand). The pilgrim Etheria saw it employed at the vigil Offices of the Sunday in Jerusalem (cf. Peregrinatio, II).”
Incense smoke symbolizes the prayers of the faithful drifting up to God (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 8:3-4). Plus, incense lends itself to the creation of a certain ambiance and it even smells delightful. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops describes the purpose of incense as an “expression of reverence and of prayer.”
According to this article from EWTN, in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, incense may be used…
- during the entrance procession
- to incense the altar at the beginning of Mass
- at the procession and proclamation of the Gospel
- at the offertory, to incense the offerings, altar, priest and people
- at the elevation of the Sacred Host and chalice of Precious Blood after the consecration
- and at funeral Masses, during which the priest, at the final commendation, may incense the coffin as a sign of honor to the body of the deceased which became the temple of the Holy Spirit at Baptism and as a sign of the faithful’s prayers for the deceased rising to God.
The first time I experienced incense being used during Mass, I watched attentively as the priest swung the thurible back and forth. In that moment, I was overcome by emotion. I was in awe. I was witnessing tradition in action. Words can not describe how I felt, but I want everyone to experience that.
Some might say that I am overly concerned with “smells and bells,” but I am okay with that, mostly because they are right.