Incense is a resin gotten from certain trees. When burned over charcoal, the incense produces a sweet-smelling aroma, makes the smoke thicker. To enhance the fragrance, sometimes other perfumes are blended with the incense.
The purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of purification and sanctification.
For example, in the Eastern Rites at the beginning of Mass, the altar and sanctuary area are incensed while Psalm 50, the “Miserere,” was chanted invoking the mercy of God. The smoke symbolizes the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven: The Psalmist prays, “Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141).
It is also used as an image of worship thanksgiving, praise, and adoration offered to the Almighty in heaven as mentioned in the New Testament, Book of Revelation (8:4): “The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel.”
Incense also creates the aura of heaven: The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly worship as follows: “Another angel came in holding a censer of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God’s holy ones. From the angel’s hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God’s people” (Revelation 8:3-4).
Thus, the usage of incense adds a sense of solemnity and mystery to the Mass. The visual imagery of the smoke and the smell remind us of the transcendence of the Mass which links heaven with earth and allows us to enter into the presence of God.
We do not know exactly when the use of incense was introduced into our Mass or other liturgical rites. At the time of the early Church, the Jews continued to use incense in their own Temple rituals, so it would be safe to conclude that the Christians would have adapted its usage for their own rituals.
The use of incense was prescribed in the liturgies of Sts. James and Mark, which in their present form originated in the fifth century. During the seventh century, a Roman Ritual marked its usage in the procession of a Bishop to the altar and on Good Friday.
The use of incense was common in Jewish worship. it was carried over into the Christian practice of today. In Exodus, Chapter 30, the Lord instructs Moses to build an altar of incense. Christian ritual books as early as the seventh century mark the use of incense in church services on Good Friday.
Moreover, in the Mass, incense is used at the entrance of the priest, before the gospel, during the offering and so on. In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal incense may be used during the entrance procession; at the beginning of Mass, to incense the altar; at the procession and proclamation of the gospel; at the offertory, to incense the offerings,altar, priest, and people; and at the elevation of the Sacred Host and chalice of Precious Blood after the consecration. The priest may also incense the Crucifix and the Paschal Candle.
The smoke of burning incense is seen by the church as an image of the prayers of the faithful rising to heaven. That symbolism is seen in Psalm 141:2: “Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening offering.”
In the thirteenth century, incense was also used at the Benedictus during Lauds and at the Magnificat during Vespers. In the fourteenth century, it was also used for the exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Gradually, its usage was extended to the incensing of the celebrant and assisting clergy.
The use of incense in the ancient world was common, especially to keep demons away. In Judaism, incense was included in the thanksgiving, offerings of oil, grain, fruits, and wine (cf. Numbers 7:13-17). The Lord instructed Moses to build a golden altar for the burning of incense (cf. Exodus 30:1-10), which was placed in front of the veil to the entrance of the meeting tent where the ark of the covenant was kept.
During funeral Masses, the priest at the final commendation may incense the coffin, both as a sign of honor to the body of the deceased which became the temple of the Holy Spirit at Baptism and as a sign of the people’s prayers for the deceased rising to God.