WHY IS INCENSE USED DURING MASS?

WHY IS INCENSE USED DURING MASS?

Why do priests and bishops use incense at Mass? Where does it come from?

Historically, the use of incense in the ancient world was common, especially in religious rites where it was used to keep demons away. Herodotus, the Greek historian, recorded that it was popular among the Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians. 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 could have adapted its usage for their own rituals.

In the liturgies of Ss. James and Mark, which in their present form originate in the fifth century, the use of incense is mentioned. A Roman Ritual of the seventh century marks it’s usage in the procession of a Bishop to the altar and on Good Friday. Moreover, in the Mass, an incensation at the Gospel appears very early; at the offertory, in the 11th century; and at the Introit, in the 12th century. Incense was also used at the Benedictus and Magnificat during Lauds and Vespers about the 13th century, and for the exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament about the 14th century. Gradually, its usage was extended to the incensing of the celebrant and assisting clergy.

The Purpose and significance of Incensing

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).

The use of incense is an expression of prayer, and it is in fact very scriptural, very Roman Catholic, and very Judeo-Christian. There is a recipe for incense in Exodus (30: 34-36), and incense is associated with divinity and reserved for God (Ex: 30: 37-38). As you will read below, during Mass we incense both things and people. In the scriptures, ritual incensing of objects, people and places was for their purification or for making the object or person holy and worthy of God. So the purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of prayer, blessing, purification, and sanctification.

INCENSE IN THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS

From the Sacred Scripture we read: “From the farthest east to the farthest west, my name is honored among the nations and everywhere a sacrifice of incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering too, since my name is honored among the nations”. (Malachi 1:11) “Let my prayer rise before you like incense O Lord”. (Psalm 141) Hence, incense is prayer in action. As Catholics, we express our worship of Almighty God in words and gestures. Burning of incense is a prayer in itself; a prayer in action. Furthermore, for Catholics prayer is action, and that action becomes ever more present through the visual and sensual experience of incense.

Incense also creates the ambiance of heaven: The Book of Revelation 8:3 describe 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.”

When is Incense Used?

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.

 



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