Incense: ‘The burning zeal of faith’

By Pat Wettstein | May 13, 2015

“Lord, may our prayer rise like incense in your site, may this place be filled with the fragrance of Christ” is one of my favorite Scripture passages from Psalm 138 adapted to music by David Haas for evening prayer. This wonderful imagery of the smoke of incense is most appropriate for the Ascension which our diocese celebrates this weekend. In St. John’s account of the Ascension, our Lord rose to heaven in a cloud, another image of mystery and the ethereal nature of such things. To this day, the smoke and aromatic perfume of incense still transports my senses to the mysterious world of the other, and I like the image of my prayers rising in a heavenly cloud to be grasped by the invisible.

Incense predates Christianity with evidence of its use by various other ancient civilizations. The Old Testament mentions the use of incense during the offerings of the some sacrifices. While the use of incense is not documented in Christianity until the fourth century, it does not necessarily preclude its use since it was a common element of Jewish temple worship.

Why do we use incense? Matthew D. Herrera explains, “Incense is a sacramental used to venerate, bless, and sanctify …. The smoke symbolizes the burning zeal of faith that should consume all Christians, while the fragrance symbolizes Christian virtue.”
The instruments used in incensing are the thurible, a type of censer used to burn the incense, and a boat that holds the incense which is poured over the burning coals inside of the thurible.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (n. 276) states that incensation may be used at various times during the Mass, such as the entrance procession; the beginning of Mass, to incense the cross and the altar; at the procession before the Gospel and the proclamation of the Gospel; to incense the offerings, as well as the priest and the people; at the elevation of the blessed host and the chalice after the consecration. Incense is also used on Holy Thursday, during the procession with the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose. At funeral Masses, the remains of the decedent and the casket may be incensed, and also at the graveside burial service.

Outside of Mass, incense may be used in solemn processions, the blessing of new churches, cemeteries and other liturgical and religious objects. Incense is used at the Holy Week Chrism Mass to bless the holy oils, and also during morning and evening prayer and at Benediction before the Blessed Sacrament.

Wettstein is a volunteer choir director and former director of music and liturgy at Good Shepherd Parish, Chilton.

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