Pastor’s Guide: The Use of Incense

Posted On: Friday, December 3, 10:09 pm

From Scott Hahn’s, Signs of Life: Forty Catholic Customs and their Biblical Roots, Chapter 23

Catholicism is sometimes called the religion of “bells and smells.” Our tradition engages the whole person. God created us as a unity of body and soul, and we return ourselves entirely to him in worship. We worship him in spirit and truth (Jn 4:24); and in our “spiritual worship” we “present our bodies” too “as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). Thus, the Church’s worship engages all that we are, including our bodily and spiritual senses. In the liturgy, we contemplate the Gospel, but that’s not all. We hear it, see it, feel it, taste it, and smell it as well. We ring bells to herald the Lord’s appearance. We burn fragrant incense before his altar.

I remember the first time I attended a Catholic liturgical event, a vespers service at a Byzantine seminary. My Calvinist background had not prepared me for the experience—the incense and icons, the prostrations and bows, the chant and the bells. All my senses were engaged. Afterward a seminarian asked me, “What do you think?” All I could say was “Now I know why God gave me a body: to worship the Lord with his people in liturgy.” Our worship is not merely good and true. It is beautiful. We make it beautiful because it is for God. A generation or two ago, incense was used much more commonly in the Mass. I am not the first convert to confess that he was enchanted by his initial experience of incense. It was a pleasant experience, an aesthetic experience. There is good reason why non-Catholics came to associate us with bells and smells. They make a powerful impression.

So powerful, in fact, that some people worried whether incense was a distraction from true worship. They worried that it might reduce liturgy to a merely aesthetic experience, a religion of externals rather than true interior life. God had warned the Israelites against such pomp; and, through the prophet Isaiah, he even went so far as to tell them: “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me” (Is 13:1). Yet God was not abolishing external forms of worship. He wanted his people to cease neglecting their interior dispositions. In fact, through the prophet Malachi, he foretold a day when “from the rising of the sun to its setting … in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering” (Mal 1:11). Indeed, incense was an important part of biblical religion—and it remains so—because God himself took care to make it so. The offering of incense was an essential duty of the priests of the Old Covenant, and the ancient law took special care to prescribe its fragrances, vessels, and rites (see, for example, Exodus, chapter 30). Of the high priest Aaron, God said: “I chose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense” (1 Sam 2:28). 

And so the priests did, from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus, and beyond. Jesus’ kinsman Zechariah was performing his priestly duty, burning incense in the Temple, when the angel Gabriel appeared to him. It was apparently customary for a “whole multitude of the people” to pray nearby “at the hour of incense” every day (see Lk 1:9–11). 

Incense became the most emblematic form of worship. Grains of incense, once dropped into a thurible with hot coals, rise heavenward as fragrant smoke. It’s meant to be an outward sign of the inner mystery that is true prayer. “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,” said the Psalmist (Ps 141:2). The metaphor still worked for St. Paul (see Phil 4:18). A Jewish theologian of the first century, Philo of Alexandria, saw the freedom of the censer’s smoke rising heavenward as a symbol of mankind’s spiritual and rational qualities, fashioned after the divine image. When incense was offered with animal sacrifice, he said, it symbolized the entirety of human nature, body and soul, given to God. So closely was incense associated with worship that, for the prophets, the very image of infidelity was to burn incense to idols. “I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have burned incense to other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands” (Jer 1:16). That image, too, worked just as well in the early centuries of Christianity, when Roman law required all citizens to burn incense before the emperor’s protector deity. In offering the pinch of incense, some Christians saved their lives (temporarily),(temporarily), but committed the mortal sin of apostasy. They abandoned true worship for false; and, in doing so, they excommunicated themselves from the Church. The Christian who remained true referred to the traitors as “thurifers”—incense burners. Thus, for all the ancients, to burn incense was to offer a richly symbolic act of worship. When St. John the Seer wanted words to depict the worship of the angels in heaven, he described it as attended by the rising smoke of much incense (see Rev 5:8). The prayers of the saints on earth, he says, rise as incense to heaven (see Rev 8:3–4). Incense belongs with worship. It is not necessary, but it is beautiful and expressive, and worthy of divine worship. God prescribed it in the Law, not for his sake, but for ours, so that we might see, through this sign, the beauty of worship.

In the time of Jesus, incense was burned not only in the Temple, but also in the “communion” meal, the chaburah we discussed in chapter 4. The rabbis debated, at great length, the proper use of incense in this ritual of hearth and home. How much more should we take care to incorporate this aromatic sign in the Mass—the meal of our New Covenant fellowship. The earliest Christian documents—the Didache, St. Justin, St. Irenaeus—applied the prophecy of Malachi 1:11 to the Eucharist. The Holy Mass, they said, was the pure offering, the always-and-everywhere offering of incense to the God of Israel. St. Paul said it well: “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 … a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor 2:14–16).

Enjoy the reading and have a great week!
-Fr. Joe