Skip to comments.Straights Answers: Why Do Priests Use Incense?
Posted on 07/21/2004 7:51:24 PM PDT by NYer
Why do priests use incense at Mass? A reader in Alexandria
Incense is an aromatic substance which is the resin from certain trees. When burned over charcoal, the incense produces a sweet smelling aroma. To make the smoke thicker and to enhance the fragrance, sometimes other perfumes are blended with the incense.
The use of incense in the ancient world was common, especially in religious rites where it was used to keep demons away. Herodotus, the Greek historian, recorded that it was popular among the Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians. In Judaism, incense was included in the thanksgiving offerings of oil, grain, fruits and wine (cf. Nm 7:13-17). The Lord instructed Moses to build a golden altar for the burning of incense (cf. Ex 30:1-10), which was placed in front of the veil to the entrance of the meeting tent where the ark of the covenant was kept.
We do not know exactly when the use of incense was introduced into our Mass or other liturgical rites. At the time of the early Church, the Jews continued to use incense in their own Temple rituals, so it would be safe to conclude that the Christians would have adapted its usage for their own rituals.
In the liturgies of Sts. James and Mark, which in their present form originate in the fifth century, the use of incense is mentioned. A Roman ritual of the seventh century marks its usage in the procession of a bishop to the altar and on Good Friday. Moreover, in the Mass, an incensation at the Gospel appears very early; at the offertory, in the 11th century; and at the Introit, in the 12th century. Incense was also used at the Benedictus and Magnificat during Lauds and Vespers about the 13th century, and for the exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament about the 14th century. Gradually, its usage was extended to the incensing of the celebrant and assisting clergy.
The purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of purification and sanctification. For example, in the Eastern Rites at the beginning of Mass, the altar and sanctuary area were incensed while Psalm 50, the "Miserere," was chanted invoking the mercy of God. The smoke symbolizes the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven: the Psalmist prays, "Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice" (Psalm 141). Incense also 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 Gods holy ones. From the angels hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of Gods people."
In 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. The priest may also incense the Crucifix and the Paschal Candle. During funeral Masses, the priest at the final commendation may incense the coffin, both 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 faithfuls prayers for the deceased rising to God.
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.
Fr. Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.
Lover of the penitent
Show your mercy in our day.
This pure incense, Lord, accept,
that these priestly hands now raise,
as gifts by the faithful of your Church
to atone and praise.
And as you received the ram
sacrificed by Abraham,
And from Aaron's hands
Sweet perfume from distant lands.
Lord, receive this incense, which, we pray may win,
mercy and release from sin.
Maronite Incense Qolo
We used to spike it with pot when I was a kid. That was always fun.
FWIW Psalm 141:2 "Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" is a fixed piece of Lutheran Evening Prayer (Vespers) 365 days a year with the use of incense during this Canticle strongly encouraged.
Thanks for posting this thread.
Boy, I sure do miss incense at church...nowadays it is a very rare sight indeed.
Try an Orthodox church. You will be pleasantly surprized.
This was many years ago, when we were just married. He had been raised Methodist although his mom is Catholic (she married a Methodist minister's son), but there was a Very High Anglican church just around the corner from our little apartment in Virginia Highlands, and I persuaded him to walk over for Easter.
He was already in shock from his encounter with the holy water font and the Lady Chapel . . . then the processional hymn started, and here came the thurifer amid clouds of smoke. As an additional wrinkle the thurifer/altar server was blind and was being led by another altar server with one hand on his shoulder, the other swinging this large smoking thurible . . . the congregation sort of flinched on every swing.
I was surprised that my husband ever darkened the door of an Episcopal church again . . . and now here he is Catholic.
Our church uses incense on high holy days - especially during the Easter Triduum, you can't see across the sanctuary.
My Anglo-Catholic parish uses incense during Holy Week and the other usual notable Sundays, and we've got one altar server who fires it up whenever he serves because, frankly, he likes it. Swings that thurifer around, too. The choir keeps egging him on to try a 360 when he incenses the congregation, but he hasn't gone for it yet. When Charlie gets the incense going, we in the choir are thankful that the new windows (that open a lot easier and wider than the old ones) were put in behind us.
Our priest sings this at every service during Lent as well. It is so beautiful.
The thing I never got used to in our old church was the Asperges at the Easter Vigil. I stood on the front left of the choir, behind the altar, and we would be singing the "Vidi Aquam" (I told you it was a High church) which is fairly difficult chant (especially when our choirmaster has the men and women singing different parts in some spots and unison in others) when all of a sudden I would get a face full of water because I was on the front row. My copy of the "Vidi Aquam" actually has water spots all over it, I got nailed every year with what seemed like quarts of holy water.
In our new church, the choir sings from the choir loft/gallery at the rear of the church, so we don't get any holy water at all . . . .<< sniff >> For the Easter Triduum we are downstairs, because we lead the procession of the Blessed Sacrament from the Tabernacle to the Chapel of Repose . . . right in front of the thurifer . . . so we get well and truly censed.
My wife was raised Roman Catholic and she told me she used to wonder why all Roman Catholic Churches smelled the same. For a while, she wondered if they all used the same wood cleaner for the pews or some such thing.
Then I got a small supply of pure frankincense from an Orthodox supply house and she realized that was what she had been smelling all along.
We only occasionally use incense at our Masses. Grew up in an old-fashioned Latin Mass RCC which was almost a cathedral! Loved the smell of incense, always have and always will.
What a sight that must be!
I once did a word study of the word, "aroma". It was amazing how often it appeared in the Bible.
"They shall be as a burnt offering to the LORD, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering made by fire for a sweet aroma to the LORD." Lev 23:18
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