So why do we use incense in the church and during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? Is it to make the place smell nice, or is it just to encourage some people to cough at the mere sight of it?
Actually, the use of incense is an expression of prayer, and it is in fact very scriptural, very Roman Catholic, and very Judeo-Christian. There is a recipe for incense in Exodus (30: 34-36), and incense is associated with divinity and reserved for God (Ex: 30: 37-38).
As you will read below, during Mass we incense both things and people. In the scriptures, ritual incensing of objects, people and places was for their purification or for making the object or person holy and worthy of God. So the purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of prayer, blessing, purification, and sanctification.
We read in Sacred Scripture:
From the farthest east to the farthest west, my name is honored among the nations and everywhere a sacrifice of incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering too, since my name is honored among the nations. (Malachi 1:11)
Let my prayer rise before you like incense O Lord. (Psalm 141)
Hence, incense is prayer in action:
As Catholics, we express our worship of Almighty God in words and gestures. Burning of incense is a prayer in itself; a prayer in action. Furthermore, for Catholics prayer is action, and that action becomes ever more present through the visual and sensual experience of incense.
Not only does the smoke symbolize the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven, incense actually creates the ambiance of heaven. The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly worship as follows: “Another angel came in holding a censer of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God’s holy ones. From the angel’s hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God’s people.” Hence, incense connects us to God’s altar in heaven and allows us to utilize all of our senses in our prayer.
The usage of incense adds a sense of solemnity and mystery to the Mass. The visual imagery of the smoke and the smell remind us of the transcendence of the Mass which links heaven with earth, and allows us to enter into the presence of God. We are called to be solemn during Mass, not somber –there is a big difference!
Incense helps to support an atmosphere of solemnity and beauty that is fitting to the greatest gift given by Christ to His Church, and the highest prayer the Church has to offer to God: the True Worship of God the Father as offered by Christ on His Cross. It helps us to understand that at Mass we enter into and are united with the worship offered God in Heaven by His Angels and Saints. If we are told, after all, that the angels stand amid clouds of incense singing God’s praise in heaven, why shouldn’t they do the same gathered around the altar, as they are, singing God’s praise during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?
When we use incense and why:
According to the the General Instruction of the Roman Missal incense may be used during the entrance procession; at the beginning of Mass, to incense the altar; at the procession and proclamation of the Gospel; at the offertory, to incense the offerings, altar, priest and people; and at the elevation of the Sacred Host and chalice of Precious Blood after the consecration.
Incense the Altar:
The Altar represents Christ and his five wounds indicated by the five crosses on the altar top. When we incense the Altar it also reconnects us to the original dedication of our church and to the angels and saints in heaven. If you attended the dedication of our church 24 August 2008, perhaps you remember after the Bishop covered the altar with the Sacred Chrism, he placed five braziers on the five wounds (crosses) on the Altar top. He poured much incense into the five braziers. This is a visual connection to the use of incense in the Book of Revelation. Just as the angels offer incense as a sacrifice at the altar of God, so to do we offer our prayers and sacrifices upon God’s new altar. Not only is this the final step in the consecration of an altar, it also connects us, in the most perfect sense, to those gathered around the great altar in heaven.
Furthermore, when we incense the altar at the beginning of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we directly connect with Christ’s Holy Sacrifice, for this is Christ’s Altar of sacrifice containing his five wounds upon which his precious body and blood will be offered.
Proclamation of the Gospel:
What are we expressing with this incensing of the Gospel Book? It is a sign of devotion toward these holy words of and about our Savior, which have been preserved for nearly 2000 years, in reverence and love. Catholics firmly believe Christ is present in His word proclaimed, and so we bless and honor that Word who will imminently be present through His words, the Holy Gospel. As the sweet smoke (always first blessed by the priest) rises toward and surrounds the holy book, we are acknowledging: these are the words that God spoke when He became man and walked on this earth; this is the story of our salvation; here is the promise of everlasting life; here is the testimony of God’s love for us.
During the offertory (the preparation of the gifts) incense is used:
1) To bless and to pray for the purification of the the bread and wine as well as the spiritual gifts the people have mentally placed on the altar. We offer all our prayers, our joys, our needs, our grief, as well as our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
2) To bless the Crucifix and Altar (again)
3) To anoint, to bless, and pray for the purification and sanctification of the priest and the congregation. So as the priest and deacon prepare the gifts, the people are also properly prepared and blessed. The incense is pure myrrh which the women carried when they went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. So in a very real sense when we are incensed during Mass our bodies have been anointed with the myrrh, and we ourselves have become a purified offering to God as we offer our gifts, our spiritual sacrifices, our bodies, our entire being to God through His Son Jesus Christ who will soon become present on the Altar.
After this beautiful blessing, anointing, and offering of prayer in action, all through incense, we are all now standing as the priest says : Pray brothers and sisters that our sacrifice (everything we have just blessed) may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father.
It is possible to use incense at the consecration during Mass. If this is the case, the thurifer must move into place during the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) and remain in a kneeling position until the Great Amen. The proper protocol for this would be incense only when the celebrating priest elevates the consecrated host or chalice. This gives a sense of our special reverence for the Eucharist, and the importance of the Eucharist to our prayer life, for incense is prayer in action.
The priest may also incense the Crucifix and the Paschal Candle. During funeral Masses, the priest at the final commendation may incense the coffin, for two reasons:
1) As a sign of honor to the body of the deceased which became the temple of the Holy Spirit at Baptism. That is a very important concept for Catholics. When the women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus Body they took with them myrrh. The incense we use at St Paul is pure myrrh which also gives honor to the dignity of the human body especially when considered in the context of the women at the tomb.
2) As a sensual sign of the faithful’s prayers for the deceased rising to God. It is that beautiful sign of prayer in action.
Benediction and Eucharistic processions:
It is Christ whom we honor in Eucharistic Adoration and Christ whom we follow in a Eucharistic procession. Our beloved patron Saint Paul writes: Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:14-15). The fragrance of incense in procession symbolizes the fragrance of Christ Himself. Incense is used during adoration as blessing and prayer which is describedabove.
Altar Servers and Incense:
Other than the beautiful theological and scriptural reasons for using incense during Mass, there is a practical reason we use it often at St Paul.
We use it consistently because it is a beautiful prayer in action and because we want to consistently train our Altar Servers. So that they serve beautiful, and their service also be prayer in action. Consistency in what they do every time they serve is very important to maintaining their grace and their knowledge of how to serve and why they do what they do when they serve. Repetition is the master of retention. We need to do the same thing at every Mass if we want it done well.
“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” (Rev. 8:3-4).
So let our prayer rise like incense, and let our incense rise like prayer, so that in all things God may be glorified!!!
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