From the time we were children visiting the manger scene at church or in our homes, we knew that after Christmas, additional figures would be added because wise men were on their way. These travelers brought gold, frankincense and myrrh.
We know the value of gold. We learned about myrrh, a bitter resin from a small tree that grows in the Eastern Mediterranean, India and the Arabian Peninsula. A yellowish resin comes from the sap of the tree and hardens and darkens with age. Today, myrrh is used in perfumes, medicine and incense.
The third gift is one that we continue to use it in our liturgical celebrations. Frankincense is the gum or resin from the boswellia species of tree. We use various additives to the traditional frankincense: sandalwood, aloe, cloves, myrrh, cedar, juniper and balsam.
In pre-Christian cultures, incense was used as a sacrifice, during exorcisms to drive away evil spirits, for healing and purification, as a sign of honor and veneration, and in warm climates as a perfume at funerals and banquets.
Early Christians hesitated to use incense because they connected its use with Jewish and pagan rituals. We know that it was used at least as early as 311 at the funeral of St. Peter of Alexandria.
Later in the fourth century, incense was used to venerate the relics of saints, altars, holy places and even special persons. When the church gathered for morning and evening prayer, incense was a sign of sacrifice. Since evening prayer was basically penitential in tone, incense was a sign of the self-offering of repentance: “My prayers rise before you like incense, the raising of my hands like an evening offering.”
The Eastern Catholic churches use incense much more frequently and lavishly than we do in the Roman rite.
In Roman rite, incense can be part of the entrance procession and we incense the altar as the Mass begins. We may incense the Gospel book as a sign of our reverence for the word of God and the gifts, as they are prepared. We also sometimes incense the celebrant and the congregation. At the Easter Vigil, we incense the paschal candle, we incense the bodies of our beloved dead during the funeral Mass, and during the Liturgy of the Hours, we may incense the altar and people during the canticles at morning and evening.
Today, some parishes use incense much more sparingly — not for religious reasons, but because of health concerns. The increase in asthma and allergies in both children and adults seems to mitigate against the vigorous use of incense. However, it is part of our tradition.
At major celebrations, where incense will probably be used, people with respiratory difficulties should position themselves near a window or aisle for better ventilation.
Sr. Rehrauer is the diocesan director of Evangelization, Living Justice and Worship.