The use of incense dates back to biblical times. It was a major part of the religious of the Israelites practice in the Temple. The book of Revelation states about how angels used incense to offer prayers to God (Rev. 8:3–5).
But the use of incense was actually not present in the early Christian practices. Though, it was often used in pagan sacrifices, and it was part of honoring the emperor as a deity. In that case, Christians avoided using it in their own religious celebrations. And It wasn’t until the 4th or 5th century that incense started being used again in ordinary Christian worship.
Many theories have been brought forth on why Christians started using incense as part of their religious practice. An ancient view in the late 1800s argued that it was meant simply to cover smells and prevent disease. Some modern views says that it is because incense remembers a time when burnt sacrifices were a part of religious expression, that it represents the incorruptibility of God (any resin that is burned will never go bad), or that through the transformation of resin to smoke, it gives an example of the transformation from body to soul.
Whatever the symbolic meaning of incense might be, it is not surprising that it has become such a big part of Catholic liturgy. We use the crucifix, we make the sign of the cross with holy water, we listen to hymns. And we smell the incense. Catholics call all these sacramentals which are sacred signs that hint at the nature of God. The Modern Catholic Encyclopediastates explains, “There are time of breakthrough, special memories and associations that help [us experience everything in relationship to God].”
Incense reminds a congregation that the entire world is sacred. Both when we see it and smell it, incense connects our senses to our lives as people of faith. Each time we go to Mass, incense reminds us about the distinction between what is holy and what is not holy.
In other words, we use incense as prayer. And people might be wondering what connects incense with prayer, quoting that prayer is about words (talking and speaking in tongue).
The truth is that prayer isn’t always about language. Picture, for instance, the incense used at Mass especially during the entrance procession, at the proclamation of the gospel, at the offertory, or at the elevation of the Eucharist after the consecration.
The smoke circles around the offering and ascends into heaven. The smell of frankincense starts in the front of the church but eventually spread to the back row. In this case, it is a prayer of a different sort, a prayer that helps us understand faith differently. Our prayers goes up to heaven, like the incense. And like the incense, what is holy circles the world around us.