The Church and the use of incense16 Nov 2015, by Sacraments in
Certain things about our way of worship in the Catholic Church appear so amazing, yet some none Catholics and even a few Catholics have no idea of how to explain or defend it if they are asked; the use of incense in our liturgy is one of those beautiful things. The use of incense in our worship is not new to any Catholic, but the reason we use it may be.
I once asked a little boy who assists on the altar to tell me the use of incense at Mass, and his response was shocking. For him, the incense is used to drive away demons from around the altar; shocking, right?.
I do not doubt that many Catholics may give a similar answer when asked the same question. My experience with many Catholics in Nigeria especially gives me that confidence. My parishioners come to me daily to have their incense blessed to be used at home simply because they feel attacked by demons. Though this sounds laughable, there is nothing faith in Christ, Jesus cannot do. So, I bless the incense as they requested. However, that is not the reason we use incense in our liturgical celebration.
The use of incense has a pre-Christian history; it was Jewish, Roman, and even associated with paganism. Even though I cannot tell you exactly when it was introduced into Catholic worship, but I can confidently tell you that this one-time pagan practice, like some other rituals in the Church, has been Christianized for the glory and worship of God. It is biblical.
In Exodus 30:1-10, God directed Moses to make an altar for the burning of incense. And in vs. 7-8, God says; And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lambs in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generation. In Numbers 7:12-17, Nahshon, the Son of Amminadab, made offerings to God, including incense. In Deut. 33:10, burnt offerings to God and incense go together. In Luke 1:8-11, Zechariah, the priest, offered incense to God in the Temple as commanded by God. Even in heaven, the Angels of God use incense (Rev. 8:3-5). These are just a few instances in the bible where incense is used; it accompanied worship and offerings to God.
In the Catholic Church, the incense is used as a sacramental that adds a sense of solemnity and mystery to our liturgy, especially the Mass. The sweet smell of the smoke is symbolically that of purification and sanctification. Just as the Jewish scarifies of animals and other things to God were accompanied by the burning of incense, so also the Church uses incense at Mass not just to express the solemnity of the celebration or to symbolically express the purification and sanctification of the gift being offered, but to express the sacrificial nature of the celebration. The Mass is a sacrifice; the sacrifice made once and for all by Jesus Christ. The Jews offered animals and burn incense as a mark of honour. Still, we offer the body and blood of Jesus Christ and burn incense as a mark of honour, purification, sanctification, and sacrificial. The sweet smoke goes up with our prayer by faith just as the Psalmist prayed in Psalm 141:2; Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. John tells us about how the saints’ prayers were mingled with the sweet smoke that came from an angel. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer. He was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hands of the angel before God (Rev. 8:3-4).
The Church’s teaching is not different from what happens in heaven; it is exactly what we see at Mass and other liturgical celebrations that involve incense. I cannot stop thanking God for the gift of the Catholic Church; for the rich heritage and traditions of the Church. Just as the smoke rose with the prayers of the saints, so also the Church teaches as documented in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal: The bread and wine are placed on the altar by the priest to the accompaniment of the prescribed formulas; the Priest may incense the gifts placed on the altar and then incense the cross and the altar itself, to signify the Church’s offering and prayer rising like incense in the sight of God (75).
Through our worship in spirit and truth, we ourselves become a sweet smell to God, as St. Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians. But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere, for we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those, who are perishing. to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life (2Cor. 2:14-16).