Holy Smoke - 26th April 2015

In recent months I have received several questions about, and requests to write a “Liturgy Lines” column on, the use of incense in liturgy.

One correspondent wrote: “Too many parishes (including mine) use virtually no incense. There's every reason for parishes to use incense regularly to add emphasis to the symbols in the rite.”

Incense is a sweet smelling resin in the form of granules or powder that produces a fragrant smoke when burned.

The burning of incense has for centuries been a feature of worship in many faith traditions.

The use of incense in liturgy has disappeared in many places, perhaps because it is considered outdated or too formal, or possibly because people complain that incense makes them cough. (Medical experts assure me that this reaction is often psychosomatic and that incense smoke is less harmful than exhaust fumes in the church carpark!

Of course, common sense dictates that good quality incense be used and the quantity adjusted according to the size and ventilation of the worship space.)

One of the important principles set out in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is that worship is enhanced when it appeals to all our senses. The smell of incense is a tangible reminder of the presence of God in worship; it is God’s grace “olfactorally incarnate”.

The use of incense in worship appeals to the eye as well as the nose. The smoke of incense rising into the air symbolises our prayer ascending to God: “Let my prayer rise like incense before you”.

Incense is a symbol of prayer, a means of purification and a sign of reverence.

At funerals, incense is used to honour the body of the deceased and to symbolise the community’s prayers for the deceased rising to the throne of God.

At Mass, it could be used during the entrance procession, to incense the altar, to honour the Word of God at the proclamation of the gospel, to reverence the gifts, altar, priest and people as part of the preparation of the gifts, and at the showing of the blessed elements after the consecration.

Incense is used as a mark of respect to accompany the procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the place of repose after Mass on Holy Thursday. It is used at the Easter Vigil over the paschal candle and the Book of Gospels.

At the dedication of a church and an altar, incense is burned on the altar to signify that Christ’s sacrifice “ascends to God as an odour of sweetness and also to signify that the people’s prayers rise up pleasing and acceptable, reaching the throne of God”. (Rite 16)

At Morning and Evening Prayer, incense may be used during the gospel canticles or to precede or accompany the praying of the classic evening psalm, Psalm 141, quoted above.

With Pentecost only a few weeks away, liturgy planners might consider having the assembly join in one of the many sung settings of Veni, Sancte Spiritus (‘Come, Holy Spirit’) as the Book of Gospels is carried through the assembly accompanied by candles and incense, culminating in the joyful acclamation: “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Alleluia!”

Elizabeth Harrington