Seminarian Nathan King who is currently on Pastoral placement at St John’s Cathedral in Portsmouth recently made a fascinating video about incense and its symbolism. Click here to watch it…
Incense calls us to prayer. It shows us how our prayer rises to God like the smoke from the thurible, purifying our worship of him. Incense reminds us of heaven and shows us that our worship of God is divine in origin.
Incense is the blood of the tree. Through repeatedly wounding the tree, its sap is brought forth. This sap is hardened and made into pellets of incense. The wounds are hardened, dead and odourless. They are placed by the priest on the coal of divine charity they melt and release a sweet fragrance that is offered in worship.
The priest takes the wounds of his people under the symbol of incense and places them on the coals transforming wounds into worship. Christ is the one who transforms wounds into worship, and this is extended to us through the Mass which is the perpetuation of his sacrifice, continually transforming suffering into love and prayer.
The use of incense is mentioned in the Old Testament.
- Exodus 30:1 “You shall make an altar on which to burn incense.”
- Leviticus 16:13 “He is to put incense on the fire before the Lord.”
- 1 Chronicles 28:18 “And the weight of refined gold for the altar of incense.”
- Psalm 141:2 “May my prayer be set before you like incense.”
The use of incense is also mentioned in the New Testament.
- Revelation 8:4 “And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the Saints, rose before God.
- Matthew 2:11 “They saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
- The gift of frankincense is still offered to Jesus to this day in the holy Mass.
Incense is used for purification and for blessing.
- The priest will incense the altar at the beginning of Mass to visually show the symbolic value of purification and sanctification.
- The deacon or priest will incense the gospel before reading it to show the importance of the word of God.
- The priest will incense the bread and wine before they are consecrated becoming the body and blood of Christ truly present on the altar.
- During the elevation of the Body and Blood of Christ, incense is used to create a mystical veil joining heaven and earth. Incense visually shows our prayers rising up to God but God’s mercy coming down upon us.
The visual imagery of the smoke and smell reminds us of the transcendence of the Mass which links heaven with earth and allows us to enter into the presence of God. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass transcends space and time, therefore the use of incense helps us to enter into this external reality through the use of our external senses. That is why incense, fragrant to the senses and visually compelling for the heart and mind, is such a powerful liturgical gift.