A priest friend of mine once shared with me his take on the secret to a life well-lived: “Moderation in all things,” he said, “except incense and orthodoxy.” I have always found his advice compelling. You certainly can’t be too orthodox in matters of the faith, with orthodoxy being openness and adherence to all that is true and good as solid ground on which to stand, and solid food you can sink your teeth into. And, by gum, I don’t think you can overdo it with incense either (with all due respect to our friends at the local firehouses!).
So, why do we use incense in the liturgy? The burning of fragrant resins and acacia wood in sacred rituals long predates Christianity. Incense was used in pagan rituals as well as in the Jerusalem Temple. There is something about the quality of the smell of burning incense that moves the human heart to contemplate the transcendent. In fact, the Lord commanded its use in the Book of Exodus, directing Aaron the high priest to burn fragrant incense on the altar of the Lord each day. Incense is also mentioned in the New Testament, most dramatically in the Book of Revelation, where angels are described as burning massive quantities of incense in the heavenly liturgy as a sign of the prayers of the blessed rising up to God.
There are several times in the Mass where the use of incense is appropriate. First, it can be used in the procession to the sanctuary at the beginning of Mass. Second, it can be used once the priest gets to the sanctuary, when he walks around the altar with the thurible (the metal container for the coals and the incense) during the singing of the entrance antiphon. Because the altar is the place in the church where the prayers of the people are focused as Christ’s offering of Himself is made to God the Father by the priest, the priest spends time using incense there, stopping to swing the thurible three times towards the crucifix. Third, the priest or deacon can use incense just before proclaiming the gospel. Fourth, incense may be used at the offertory, when the priest has prepared the gifts of bread and wine for the sacrifice. Finally, it may be used at the consecration, to incense the Most Blessed Sacrament as the priest elevates the Host and the chalice.
There is something paradoxical about the way incense helps us to contemplate the divine, since contemplation refers to vision and the smoke of incense “clouds” our vision, preventing us from seeing clearly. But this is fitting for liturgy because, though present, the Lord remains obscure. This is most true when it comes to Our Lord’s presence in the Eucharist. He is truly present (body, blood, soul, divinity), but veiled by the appearance of bread and wine. In a similar way, incense points to the hidden presence of the sacred in our midst – heaven descending and touching the earth. This goes back to the Book of Exodus, when the divine presence of the Lord dwelled with the Israelites in the wilderness as a column of smoke and fire, leading them on the way, and descending on the meeting tent (the “tabernacle”) when He wanted the people to make camp. At times the smoke was so thick, not even Moses could enter the tent. Thus, the Lord was clearly present, but simultaneously obscured.
Like sacred music, vestments, and artwork, incense makes sensible the invisible realities that take place in our midst in the liturgy. This is important because we human beings are spirit and body. We worship the Lord not just with our minds and hearts, but also with our bodies. The burning of precious incense engages our senses – our vision and our smell – helping us to experience in our bodies the mystical encounter between Christ and the Church that happens at every Mass, an event that cries out for immoderation.