What’s the purpose of incense?

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Incense was big in ancient religions. You can appreciate why when you think about how much blood was splashed around in ritual sacrifices or how troublesome the smell of bodies (both living and deceased) was in the time before modern hygiene. The perfume industry did well in a world where peculiar odors were the rule rather than the exception. It covered a multitude of sins in more ways than one.


Like most ritual elements, its practical use laid the groundwork for a spiritual interpretation as well. The sweet smell that cloaked odors also drove out evil spirits and welcomed the divine Presence. Smoke provides a certain amount of concealment, too, which is why we speak of a “smokescreen” (effectively used by the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz!). This veil of mystery hints at the sacred One who cannot be seen by mortal eyes. Smoke rises toward the sky, traditionally the dwelling place of the divine. It’s no surprise that the psalm popularly prayed in the Liturgy of the Hours declares: “Let my prayer be incense before you” (Psalm 141:1-2). We also “lift up our hearts” to God in prayer at every Mass. Everything that goes to God, goes up.

Incense comes from the Latin word for “something burned.” It was produced from the resin of trees and burned either in a swinging thurible pot or a stationary brazier. The first is useful for incensing around a crowd of people, as we do at Mass. The second works for producing a cloud around an altar or sacred object.

Before the Second Vatican Council the use of incense was restricted only to High Masses. Now it can be used at any Mass: to honor the sacrament, the assembly and presider, the gospel book, the ambo and altar. The first recorded use of incense in Christian rituals was at a funeral in the year 311, and it’s still used to reverence the body of the deceased at funerals today—reminding us that the destiny of the loved one, as our own destiny, is to unite with God in the life to come.

As liturgist Paul Philibert elegantly expresses it: “Incense, the fragrant, lovely substances that allows itself to be consumed and to float off into indeterminate space beyond our reach, signifies the loving entrustment of our lives to God’s providence.” The sign of incense, burned to ashes yet producing a pleasing fragrance in its surrender, symbolizes our capitulated self-interest in radical trust in the divine will.

Exodus 30:1-10; Psalm 141:1-2; Sirach 24:15; Isaiah 60:6; Jeremiah 6:20; Matthew 2:11; Mark 14:8; John 12:3, 7

Seeing and Believing: Images of Christian Faith by Frank Kacmarcik and Paul Philibert (Liturgical Press, 1995)
The Symbols of the Church, ed. by Maurice Dilasser (Liturgical Press, 2000)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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