Heavenly Scent for Worship | National Catholic Register
Oh, incense. As the priest swings the censer, the aromatic smoke of the burning incense, with its sweet scent of frankincense and myrrh, rises and fills the sanctuary. Then, the celestial fragrance spreads to the faithful.
“Incense, with its fragrant perfume and its rising smoke, is typical of the prayer of the good Christian, which, kindled in the heart by the fire of the love of God and exhaling the odor of Christ, raises a pleasant offering in his eyes,” explains the Catholic Encyclopedia.
When explaining the meaning of incense, Father John Paul Mary Zeller of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word refers to the book of Revelation and its description of heavenly worship: “Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he received a large quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the hand of the angel” (8:3-4). Father Jean-Paul points out that this paints a wonderful picture of the role of incense in divine worship: “Incense represents our prayers rising before the throne of God.
“We are visual people,” says Father John Paul. “We apprehend things through our senses, our sight, our smell, our hearing, our taste. In fact, seeing the incense rising uplifts our spirit into using our sense for the things of God. When we smell incense, we can remember the holiness of God, the sweetness of God, the presence of God.
“Let my prayer come before you like incense; the lifting up of my hands, as the evening sacrifice,” says the Psalmist (141:2). The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) refers to this verse saying that “incense is an expression of reverence and prayer, as it is signified in Sacred Scripture”. The instruction states that, if desired, incense can be used “in any form of Mass.”
Millennia of use
Before examining the ins and outs of incense used in the Church today, the faithful should realize that its use was a practice instituted by God Himself. He commanded Moses, “You shall make an altar on which to offer incense; Aaron will offer fragrant incense there morning and evening (Exodus 30:7-8). The altar was placed in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Then Leviticus 6:15 mentions incense to be used when offering flour and grain oil.
Fast forward to the book of Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet, where we read (1:11), “For from sunrise to sunset my name is great among the nations, and in everywhere incense is offered in my name, and a pure offering.
In the context of divine worship in the Old Testament, it was giving God his due.
Gifts for Jesus
And in the Christmas story, two of the gifts the Magi brought to the Christ Child were frankincense and myrrh. Today, the same incense is obtained from two resinous trees in the Middle East (sometimes supplemented with added fragrances, such as rose and flowers).
Given the reference in Revelation, we see that the early Christians were familiar with the use of incense and continued the sacred practice, as mentioned in fifth century liturgies, including the incense of the Gospel; in the 11th century it was used at the offertory of the Magnificat during vespers around the 13th century and during the blessing of the Blessed Sacrament about a century later.
As the Catechism (1146) notes, “In human life, signs and symbols occupy an important place. As being both body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols. As a social being, man needs signs and symbols to communicate with others, through language, gestures and actions. The same goes for his relationship with God.
The second time incense is used during Mass is before the proclamation of the Gospel. “The words of the Lord are holy,” Father Jean-Paul explained. “The Church would say that Christ speaks in his Church. It is not only the priest, but Christ, who speaks these words. Thus the Gospel is on fire before the word of the Lord is announced.
The Catechism (1154) refers to this use of incense at this time, as well as candles, “to nourish the faith of believers”.
Then, at the Offertory, the gifts of bread and wine given to Almighty God which will be changed into the Body and Blood of Our Lord are censed “to signify the offering and the prayer of the Church rising as incense before God”, explains the GIRM. Once again, the altar and the cross are incensed.
“Immediately after this, the servant will incense the priest, the one offering the sacrifice, who will bring the bloodless sacrifice of Christ to the altar,” Fr. Jean-Paul said, further explaining that the action denotes sacred ministry. of the priest. Then, a deacon or a servant will incense those present because of their baptismal dignity, and “because we are the saints of God, we are not yet the Church in heaven, but Saint Paul said to the Corinthians, always on the run for our salvation.”
The incense appears again at the elevation, when the priest raises the Eucharist during the consecration. At this time, “the servant will incense the Blessed Sacrament, then the chalice as the Blood of Christ rises”, explains Father Jean-Paul.
Easter and elsewhere
There are other times when the heavenly aroma of incense fills the sacristy and the church. During the Blessing, when the Lord is solemnly exposed in the monstrance, the Blessed Sacrament ignites during the chanting of O Salutaris Hostia and Tantum Ergo. When the priest gives the solemn benediction, making the sign of the cross with the monstrance, the server will incense the Blessed Sacrament.
Father Jean-Paul adds another use. At vespers on Sunday, the altar is incensed, and incense is also used when the Magnificat is sung.
Of course, when during a ceremony the priest places incense in the thurible or thurible and blesses it with the sign of the cross, it becomes a sacramental. Father Jean-Paul also noted “that incense is used as protection against evil. In solemn rites of exorcism, or during an exorcism or house blessing, incense may be used.
There are two times the incense is used without being burned. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, unburned grains of incense are placed in the sepulcher of consecrated altars. The other occasion is during Easter. During the Easter Vigil, the priest places five grains of incense in the Paschal candle to symbolize the five wounds of our risen Saviour.
Of course, during Easter, at mass, the priest will incense the Paschal candle, and he will also do so during a funeral mass. Father Jean-Paul adds that a priest will often incense the coffin “to honor the body of the deceased because they become a temple of the Holy Spirit through baptism. Here the use of incense will often bring a surprising reaction and result concerning non-Catholics.
As Father Jean-Paul observes, “the role of incense during a funeral rite has led many people to convert to see the dignity with which the Church treats the body”.
In any case, incense is part of and contributes to “the sanctity of divine worship”, emphasizes Father Jean-Paul.
“We want to give God his due. All those important things that we use during liturgies to lift our minds and our hearts to the transcendent, to God.