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 first recorded use of incense for worship is from Egypt around 2400 B.C. That’s 400 years before the time of Abraham. Incense was also used in ancient China and plays a part in Buddhist, Shinto and Taoist ceremonies. Hindus have also used incense in worship from ancient times.
In the Old Testament, God gave Moses instructions on how to build the tabernacle — the traveling temple of God. The Book of Exodus recounts the instructions to build an altar of incense to stand to the side of the altar of sacrifice (see 30:1-10). When the priest enters the tabernacle each morning and evening to tend the perpetually burning lamps he is also commanded to offer incense.
Just as the oil lamps were to burn constantly in the Temple as a sign of God’s presence, so there was a constant pillar of smoke ascending to heaven from the tabernacle. The pillar of smoke was a sign of God’s constant guiding presence to the people. It hearkened back to the column of smoke that led the people through the wilderness by day and the column of fire that led them during the night.
God even gives Moses a recipe for making the incense: “Take these aromatic substances: storax, onycha and galbanum, these and pure frankincense in equal parts; and blend them into incense. This fragrant power, expertly prepared, is to be salted and so kept pure and sacred. Grind some of it into fine dust and put this before the covenant in the tent of meeting where I will meet with you. This incense shall be treated as most sacred by you” (Ex 30:34-36).
The Jewish offering of incense continued throughout the Old Testament period — first in the tabernacle, and then in the Temple in Jerusalem. Incense was also offered as part of the religious ceremonies in the surrounding pagan religions. In fact, most of the references in the Bible to incense are the Old Testament prophets lamenting the fact that too often the Jewish people had forsaken the Lord and chosen to make sacrifices, including the offering of incense to the false gods.
Why did people offer incense in the first place? The priests of pagan religions believed that the incense was a “spiritual offering.” The smoke was an intermediary substance between earth and air. The demons were marked by a sulfurous stench, and the fragrant incense would drive them away; meanwhile, the beneficial gods would be appeased and grant the worshiper protection and prosperity.
The New Age practice of “smudging” connects people with the supposedly Native American tradition of using fragrant smoke to purify the atmosphere of an area — driving away negativities and creating a positive mood. Implied in the calm discussion of smudging is the superstitious idea that evil spirits are being driven away be the fragrant smoke and the “good spirits” will be pleased and invited.
The pagans offered sacrifices to gain benefits from the gods. Offering incense was forbidden by God in the Old Testament because it was not only a way to offer pagan gods worship, but was a way to invite them into one’s life.
The Increase of Incense
John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, was a priest of the Jewish religion. He was taking his turn serving in the Temple when the angel Gabriel appeared, informing him of the pregnancy of his wife, Elizabeth. The Temple duty he was performing at the time was the evening offering of incense. As he did so his actions echoed Psalm 141:2: “Let my prayer be incense before you; / my uplifted hands an evening offering.”
The psalmist expresses the true meaning of the offering of sacrifice. It is not to appease angry false gods or to drive away the fearsome demons. Instead, the rising smoke is a symbol of prayer. The wafting smoke and the lifting up of one’s hands in the traditional gesture of prayer provides a most powerful and poignant symbol of pure and heartfelt prayer to the true God.
This beautiful prayer action is seen at the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth. That a priest of the Old Covenant was offering incense when the birth of the forerunner of the New Covenant is announced links the use of incense as a prayer offering to the worship of Christ the Lord.
The fulfillment of this worship is pictured in the Book of Revelation when St. John has a vision of the worship in heaven (see Chapter 4). He understands the worship in heaven to be a completion of the Jewish worship in the Temple. Because of his vision and because the first Christians were Jews, it would make sense to assume that the early Christians used incense in their Eucharistic ceremonies.
The offering of incense as viewed in the first few centuries of Church writings is usually negative. One of the most common ways to ask Christians to compromise their faith was to force them to offer incense to pagan gods. It is probable, therefore, that the practice of using incense in Christian worship was abandoned to avoid confusion among the faithful and to present a clear witness: incense offerings were associated with paganism and, therefore, abandoned by Christians.
Incense in worship made a comeback in the fifth century once Christianity was firmly established. Its use increased in the East and the West so that it’s use as a symbol of prayer and as a means of sanctifying and purifying became universal.
Revelation of Incense
As the use of incense increased, its connection with the Book of Revelation was seen more clearly. The apostle John saw clearly that the offering of incense was a beautiful symbol of prayer. So, he writes, “the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones” (5:8). The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.
The servers at Catholic Mass kneel before the altar during the Sanctus — when the faithful sing with the angels, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory.” As they do so they echo the angels in heaven. Then the server swings the incense as the priest offers up the Lamb of God on the altar. At that point in the Mass heaven’s doors are opened, earth and heaven are met, and we get a little glimpse of glory.