Using Incense in Worship

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, the bouquet of wine and the perfume of chrism (known in the early Church as “the Easter smell”) bring delight to all present and help the faithful engage in the liturgy.
The “smell” in the “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 both for pagans and Jews in the pre-Christian world. The early Christians however baulked at its use in their worship because it was associated with pagan sacrifice, though they did sometimes burn incense at Christian funerals where it was seen more as a protective measure. With the end of paganism in the fourth century, incense gradually became part of Christian worship.
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.
Today it is often used in the liturgy.

At Mass, it may 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 consecrated bread and wine after the consecration.
At Easter, it 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 funerals, incense is a sign of honour to the body of the deceased, which through baptism became the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is also used as a sign 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 to precede or accompany the praying of the classic evening psalm (Ps 141) quoted above.
The smell of incense is a tangible reminder of the presence of God in worship; it is God’s grace “olfactorally incarnate”.


Elizabeth Harrington