Why Does the Catholic Church Use Incense?



This answer from EWTN’s Fr Saunders. Has been edited here for brevity.


Q. Why do priests use incense at Mass? Where does it come from?

The use of incense in the ancient world was common, especially in religious rites where it was used to keep demons away. In Judaism, incense was included in the thanksgiving offerings of oil, rain, fruits, wine (cf. Numbers 7:13-17). The Lord instructed Moses to build a golden altar for the burning of incense (cf. Exodus 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

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 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.”

Q. Why do we use incense at some Mass’s and not at others?

It is optional.

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 faithful’s 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 allow us to enter into the presence of God.

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

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18 Responses

  1. most illuminating..thanks..

  2. The enemies of the Church and Our Enemy are misleading with half truths, lies, and biased reporting.

    Regarding the latest NYT see UK reporter Damian Thompson’s report about the Fr. Murphy affair in Wisconsin.–Click Here

    For perspective see Keeping the Record Straight

    Also see–>>
    Times vs the Vatican Round II

  3. i want to know how you can after marriage to be a preist

  4. Christian,
    There are some Eastern Rites in union with Rome who ordain a married man to the priesthood. However, these priests will never be chosen to be a bishop. This is the same as in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

    But once a man is ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Rite, an Eastern Catholic Rite or the Eastern Orthodox Churches they ARE NOT ALLOWED TO MARRY.

  5. i think its because it was done so during the time of jesus,bt as an african we us incense to connect with our ancestors

  6. can you list the various woods and resins used in the incense formula for the ark of the covenant

    • Jesmith,

      The only information that is known is that in the Talmud that they use eleven incenses. We really dont know what was actually used but traditionally accepted is according to the Talmud they use balsamv, onycha, galbanum, frankincense, myrrh, cassia, spikenard, saffron, costus, aromatic bark, and cinnamon.

  7. incense is used to clean the static and create the atmosphere that is needed to pray, each incense does a different task, this of course anybody can do in their own homes as well.

  8. can anyone tell me the official name of the incence-bearer at a catholic mass? thank you in anticipation

  9. incense used by monks in ancient times was mainly furnished by two trees- boswellia sacra from arabia and boswellia papyrifera from india and other special elements (secret)…see numbers 7:14 and deuteronomy 33:10…blending these was assigned under old-law ordinances only to particular monks or families…see canticles 3:6….Br.Richard, Ascension Monastery

  10. the official name of an incense bearer is a thurifer…he is the chief alter server…incense is also used during the praying of the office in the evening (vespers) on sunday evenings and certain feast days….certain psalms and chants are used along with incense depending on the liturgical calander and type of prayer..Psalm 141:2 is fairly common along with the Benedictus…Br. Richard

  11. Interesting. I’m surprised no one mentioned how the wise men gave Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. I’d also like to know the significance of those gifts.

  12. People say:
    Gold was for Jesus’ kingship
    Frankincense-Divinity
    Myrrh-signifying his death

    But this is speculation and not official Church teaching according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

    However, as St. Fulgentius says, we may learn the faith of the wise men from the gifts they offer, and so we consider the teaching of the Church preserved in her Sacred Liturgy:

    “The wise men came from the East to adore the Lord in Bethlehem. Opening their treasures, they offer him three precious gifts: gold for the great King, frankinsense for the true God, and myrrh for his burial, alleluia.” (Benedictus antiphon for the Monday after Epiphany)

    This same teaching is preserved by both Gregory the Great and Augustine, the latter saying:

    “Gold, as paid to a mighty King; frankincense, as offered to God; myrrh, as to one who is to die for the sins of all.”

    This is why the wise men offered the Christ Child the odd (but precious) gift of myrrh – they had come to believe that he would die for the salvation of the world. Already, from his infancy, it was known and believed by these men (and surely by Blessed Mary and St. Joseph) that the Savior would offer his life as a most pure sacrifice and that by his death he would gain for us eternal life.

    • Thank you, but I fail to see how what people speculate differs from official Catholic teachings. It seems the same to me.

  13. Please i will like to know the origin of Knight and their duties in the catholic church. God bless u.

  14. Let’s not forget that incense symolises throwing our prayers (the incense) onto the burning coal (of Christ’s heart) and their being transformed and rises up like the Holy Spirit to the Father.

  15. Finally an answer!

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