Holy Smoke! What is all that incense about? The reaction is rather mixed when it comes to incense. So love it and some love to hate it. But the bottom line about incense is that it is a symbol of prayer. As the incense gently rises it images our prayers going up to God. As the incense slowly settles in is a fragrant symbol for God’s graces. And don’t fan that incense away! Take a breath! It is holy smoke. Like holy water that literally showers a blessing on us, so too does the fragrant incense, blessed by the priest bring us God’s blessings as we breathe it in. Perhaps it is a blessing best received in moderation but it is a blessing.
So here at the beginning of the Mass the priest may incense the Altar. Why? What is the history of this action and and what is our intention in using incense?
In the first place, the use of Incense is another way of showing prayerful reverence to the altar which is a symbol for Christ. This is done by circling the altar and swinging a smoking censor of fragrant incense . In addition to the altar, the Cross is also incensed at this time. The use of incense does not take place at every Mass. It is an option and although it may be used at the discretion of the celebrant, it tends to be reserved to special occasions and to more solemn feasts of the Church. The General Instruction indicates it is to be used “when the occasion warrants it.” In the old Latin Mass the use of incense was restricted to solemn and sung Masses. Today there are few restrictions on its use but ironically it is seen less often. Its use then, tends to be oriented to a heightening of the solemnity. As with so many externals, vestments, flowers, music, and the like, there is intended an aid to the senses in grasping the greatness of the feast. Incense lends itself especially to religious symbolism for prayer and such imagery is used in the 141st psalm: Let my prayers rise like incense before you O Lord...(Vs. 2). See also Rev. 8:4 “The smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended before God from the hand of the Angel.” It is therefore a sign of our prayers rising to God and His blessings descending upon us. The incensing prayer to be recited by the priest at the incensing of the gifts that was recited by the priest in the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Mass beautifully describes this image: “May this incense, blessed by You, ascend to You O Lord, and many your mercy descend upon us.” In addition, its burning symbolizes the burning zeal which should consume the Christian, the sweet fragrance is the odor of Christian virtue. Here too the prayers of the priest in the Solemn Latin Mass as he hands the thurible to the Deacon at the Offertory includes this image: May the Lord enkindle in us the fire of His love and the flame of everlasting charity. Amen.
The use of incense in the culture of the early Church was common in wealthier homes as its perfume was in demand. It was a strong part of burial traditions and it was a major component in both the Jewish Temple and in pagan worship. It was probably its connection with pagan worship that limited it use in early Church. However, with the virtual disappearance of paganism after the 4th century, incense found its way gradually into the Liturgy being carried especially in processions. By the 9th century incense was in use at least at the beginning of the Mass and by the 11th century there is explicit mention of the incensing of the altar. During the Middle Ages the use of incense at other points during the Mass was introduced. Likewise the objects of incense became more numerous. Now persons, relics, and the oblations were incensed as well as the altar. The Tridentine Missal prescribed that when incensed was used it was to be used at the following times:
- 1. The altar, cross, and celebrant are incensed at the beginning.
- 2. The Gospel is incensed just prior to its being sung.
- 3. At the offertory, the oblations, the altar, the cross, the priest, the deacon, subdeacon, choir, and the assembly are all incensed in this order.
- 4. The host and chalice after each consecration are incensed as they are held aloft.
Today, this “schedule” of incensations is retained with the exception of the incensation of the celebrant at the beginning. This is now done only at the offertory.
After incensing the altar the celebrant goes immediately to the chair.