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Using Incense in Worship
LITURGY ON THE NOSE
One of the important principles of liturgy espoused in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from Vatican II is that liturgy works through signs perceptible to the senses (CSL 7).
Worship is enhanced when it appeals to all our senses – including the sense of smell. The aroma of burning beeswax candles, the bouquet of wine and the perfume of chrism (known in the early Church as “the Easter smell”) delight the senses and help the faithful engage in the liturgy.
The “smell” part of the old “bells and smells” description of Catholic worship refers to the aroma of incense. Incense is a sweet smelling resin in the form of granules or powder that produces a fragrant smoke when burned.
The burning of incense was a feature of religious worship for pagans and Jews in the pre-Christian world. Early Christians baulked at its use because it was associated with pagan sacrifice. With the end of paganism in the fourth century, incense gradually became part of Christian worship.
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” (Ps 141:2).
Incense is used to emphasise the sacredness of a person or object. It is a symbol of prayer, an accompaniment to sacrifice, a means of purification, a sign of reverence and honour.
There are a number of times when incense may be used in the liturgy today.
At Mass, it may be used during the entrance procession; to incense the cross and the altar at the beginning of Mass; at the procession and proclamation of the Gospel; to reverence the gifts, cross, altar, priest and people as part of the preparation of the gifts; at the showing of the host and chalice after the consecration. (GIRM 276)
At Easter, incense is used 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 funerals, incense is used to honour the body of the deceased. It is also used as a symbol of the community’s prayers for the deceased rising to the throne of God and as a sign of farewell.
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 the communal celebration of Morning and Evening Prayer, incense may be used during the gospel canticles or the praying of the evening psalm.
Some people will complain that incense makes them cough, but people with medical expertise assure me that incense smoke is less harmful than the 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.