The use of incense is optional for most Masses. It’s used to purify the coffin at funerals and to bless statues and images. However, many Catholic priests choose not to use incense at Mass, and the people of many parishes have forgotten the uses and meaning of incense in worship.
Over the last 50 years many Catholic traditions have been abandoned and forgotten. Too many Catholics simply went through the motions and did not understand what the different devotions and actions of worship meant. When the chance came to abandon the old ways, many priests set them aside in an attempt to simplify Catholic worship and make it more accessible for the people.
The history of incense in worship
The use of incense in religious worship predates Christianity by thousands of years. First in the East (circa 2000 BC in China with the burning of cassia and sandalwood, etc.), and later in the West, incense use has long been an integral part of many religious celebrations. The Bible mentions incense 170 times. The use of incense in Jewish temple worship continued well after the establishment of Christianity and certainly influenced the Catholic Church’s use of incense in liturgical celebrations.
The earliest documented history of using incense during a Catholic sacrificial liturgy comes from the Eastern branch of the Church. The rituals of the Divine Liturgies of Saint James and Saint Mark dating from the 5th century include the use of incense. In the Western Church, the 7th century Ordo Romanus VIII of Saint Amand mentions the use of incense during the procession of a bishop to the altar on Good Friday. Documented history of incensing the Evangeliary (Book of Gospels) during the Mass dates from the 11th century. The use of incense within the liturgies continued to be developed over many years.
Why do we use incense?
In the Old Testament God commanded His people to burn incense (e.g., Exodus 30:7, 40:27). Incense is a sacramental used to venerate, bless, and sanctify. Its smoke conveys a sense of mystery and awe. It is a reminder of the sweet-smelling presence of our Lord. Its use adds a feeling of solemnity to the Mass. The visual imagery of the smoke and the smell reinforce the transcendence of the Mass linking Heaven with Earth, allowing us to enter into the presence of God. The smoke symbolizes the burning zeal of faith that should consume all Christians, while the fragrance symbolizes Christian virtue.
Incensing may also be viewed in the context of a “burnt offering” given to God. In the Old Testament animal offerings were partially or wholly consumed by fire. In essence, to burn something was to give it to God.
(Sources: simplycatholic.com and adoremus.org)
Read more in the “Why Do We Do That?” series from Deacon Mike Fritz.