Going up in smoke
Part of the joy of our Catholic faith is the ol’ “bells and smells,” and there’s no more Catholic smell than incense. I grew to love incense so much after learning why the Church loves incense so much, and I hope you will fall deeper in love with this meaningful and beautiful liturgical practice.
Incense has been used in liturgical and personal prayer since the beginning because it accomplishes three things.
First, burning incense is an act of worship. Long before Catholics burned incense at Mass, our elder siblings in the faith, the Jewish faithful, burned offerings to God as an act of worship. By burning up a sacrificed animal or grains on the altar of the Temple, a “pleasant aroma” would waft up to the heavens for God’s enjoyment, to be received as a sacrifice acceptable to the Father. Sweet resins and hardened tree saps would also be put on hot coals to produce delightful smells in the sanctuary. Recall that along with gold and costly oils, the Magi also brought expensive frankincense…gold for the King of Kings, myrrh to anoint Him at His burial, and frankincense to burn before Him as the Son of God.
Secondly, the incense represents our prayers. In the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, St. John describes how he saw angels swinging golden thuribles (that’s the official name of the incense burners on a chain we use today) with clouds of incense billowing up to the throne of God. When he asks an angel what’s going on, he gets the response that the clouds of smoke are the prayers of the faithful rising up to God’s presence.
Third and finally, the incense conveys a sense of mystery in our prayer. The Mass is not a cooking show, but an act of worship of the Infinite and Almighty God. The cloud of incense that lingers around the sanctuary is intended to blur our vision just a bit, to make us realize that even though the Lord comes so close to us in Word and in Sacrament, He is ever-greater, He is ever-more. The Eucharistic celebration is a foretaste of heaven, the cloud incense reminding us that “no eye has seen, no ear heard, what God has ready for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
At Mass and Eucharistic exposition, we use incense for all the above reasons. It is a burnt offering rising up before the Father; it also is an image of our prayers rising up to God’s throne; and it should awaken within us a sense of awe before the sacred and divine mysteries into which we enter.
So next time you see the procession lead by an altar server carrying the thurible, you’ll know it’s not just an old tradition, but an expression of our living faith and our desire to have everything lifted up to the Father’s glory and delight.