Incense: Its meaning in the Sacred Liturgy

One of the most astounding elements of the Catholic faith, for me, is Biblical Typology. As a protestant who knew all of the stories and little of the meaning, discovering this, particularly in praying the psalms, added to the veracity of the Catholic Church’s claims to be the One True Church, the new Israel.

There is such richness in meditation on the literal, analogical and anagogical meanings of these texts and the way in which they form a coherent whole adds to the veracity of the truths of the faith and the necessity of the traditional liturgy in communicating the fullness of the Catholic faith. The liturgy speaks to us deeply through ritual, ceremony and symbolism which has multidimensional meaning. I am very fortunate to direct the music of a parish in which a Sung Traditional Latin Mass is the principal Mass and where Sunday Vespers is sung. I am going to consider the use of incense in the traditional Mass and Vespers and will aim to draw together the literal, allegorical and eschatological significance of its use by Holy Mother Church. We can understand easily why the Blessed Sacrament is honoured with incense since it is the real presence of Our Lord Jesus. The altar too representative of Christ and His sacrifice, the fountainhead of grace, is incensed. Many, however, are unsure as to why the priest is incensed. The priest is a instrument of Christ and is confirmed to Him through ordination. When the priest administers the sacraments, he acts in persona Christi, in the very person of Christ. The incensation of the priest is, therefore, the invention of Christ, the head of the mystical body who is leading the people in worship. At the time of Our Lord’s earthly life, it was proper to anoint the beard of a guest with perfume or to scent it with incense as a sign of honour. The priest-historian Fr James L Meagher writes that this would have been performed at the last supper because it was a high ceremonial banquet. So as Christ and the apostles would have been incensed as a sign of honour, so the sacred ministers, servers and congregation are incensed in the Mass. While it is consoling to think of ourselves as honoured guests at the banquet of the lamb we should meditate on the confluence of our status as adopted sons and daughters of the most high with the means of attaining this status. The apostles were honoured with incense but it was through allowing the master to wash their feet that they had a part in him. So too we must approach the sacred liturgy with humility and reverence with recognition that we like Pope St Peter need not only our feet washed but also our hands and our heads.

The first principal which should be established is that when we participate in the Sacred Liturgy we are existing on two planes of reality. First, we are present in time and space, we are in a particular church at a particular time engaging in a liturgical action then and there. Second, we step out of time and into the eternal present moment with God. In this sphere we are present at the eternal sacrifice of Calvary and the and at the heavenly worship of The Lamb described in the book of the Apocalypse. What does the use of incense mean to us in these two spheres?

Incense has always been associated with worship, even the pagans have offered incense to false gods for thousands of years. We remember the reason for the prophet Daniel’s spell in the den of lions- he refused to offer but one grain of incense in worship of the king. (It is worth reflecting on the way in which God defended Daniel when he took a risk and refused to compromise with false god of his time.) 

For Catholics, incense represents the rising to God of our prayers. 

“And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel.”

Apocalypse 8:3-4

In the eternal worship of The Lamb in heaven, the prayers of the saints and our own rise before the throne of God upon a golden altar. In the offertory prayers of the Mass we read:

“Through the intercession of Blessed Michael the Archangel, standing at the right hand of the altar of incense, and of all His elect may the Lord vouchsafe to bless + this incense and to receive it in the odor of sweetness. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

May this incense blessed by You, arise before You, O Lord, and may Your mercy come down upon us.”

This makes it clear to us that in the Mass we are caught up in the very worship of Heaven. As we join our voices to those of the all the hosts of heaven in the Sanctus, so our eyes witness what is happening before the throne of God. 

For Catholics, incense indicates the presence of God.

Whether the smoke of Mount Saini or the incensing of the altar and the Blessed Sacrament, incense communicates something of the presence of God. Just as God led the Israelites through the desert in a pillar of cloud (God’s presence- the Shekinah), so, in the Mass, we are reminded of the sacrifice of Christ represented by the altar, the person of Christ represented by the priest (the alter Christus) and His real presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

For Catholics, incense is synonymous with sacrifice.

A lesser known truth about the use of incense is that it is synonymous with sacrifice. The above quote mentions a golden altar before the throne of God in heaven, the wise men offered incense before the tabernacle of the manger and we have an altar before the throne of the tabernacle but what about the roots of this aspect of the use of incense?

In his book ‘How Christ said the first Mass’, Fr James Meagher explains that in the temple in Jerusalem, two forms of Sacrifice were offered as God had instructed Moses. First, on the great altars of the court of priests was the bloody sacrifice of animals. Before a lamb was slain, the priest would lift it, bound as was our Blessed Lord, and would move it in a gesture from north, south, east and west to symbolise that the sacrifice was for the sins of all the people. Before the Lamb of God was slain, the sacrifice of God’s chosen people involved a sign of the cross- a gesture which is performed with the host by the priest in the Mass. 

The second form of sacrifice is the burning of incense. This was performed in the gold-plated holy of holies. Before the monumental veil of green, white, purple and red, which was between the priest and the Shikinah, the real presence of God, incense was offered on the altar. On the day of atonement, once a year, the high priest would take blood from the altars outside and spread it on the corners of the altar of incense showing that the unbloody sacrifice of incense was one with the bloody sacrifice of the lamb. 

At Vespers there is a beautiful tradition that the altar in incensed by the priest during the singing of the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary, The Magnificat. The priest incenses the very same altar on which the Sacrifice of the Cross was re-presented that morning. The incense reminds us then, that the bloody sacrifice of the Cross is One and the Same as the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass, just as it was on the day of atonement in the temple of the old covenant. Further emphasis is given to this reality in the use of the versicle at Vespers “Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight; the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice.” Ps 140:2. This psalm is also used in the incensing of the altar in the Mass- the two liturgical actions being one act of sacrifice to the Father. 

In the traditional liturgy of the Church then, we see continuity with the worship of God through time, the literal meaning of its use in the present and the way in which it draws us into the eternal worship of the angels and saints in heaven.

Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight; the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice.