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Holy Smokes: Why Catholics Use Incense in Worship

Sep 10, 2017 By Gretchen Filz

At Mass and other liturgical services we see priests and altar servers swinging censers, sending clouds of incense wafting through the air. In Catholic liturgy, everything symbolizes a theological truth.

So, what does incense symbolize?

Incense has been used in Christian liturgy from its earliest centuries. In fact, it was a part of the Jewish tradition that came before it, a use that was commanded by God himself and recorded in Sacred Scripture.

INCENSE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

God commanded Moses to make an Altar of Incense for worship in the Tabernacle:

You shall make an altar to burn incense upon; of acacia wood shall you make it . . . And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it,  and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. (Exodus 30:1-10)

God also commanded how the incense should be made, a "holy recipe":

And the Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part),  and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy;  and you shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. And the incense which you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be for you holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 30:34-38)

From these passages and others we infer that incense was part of a ritual cleansing and purification of the sacred space of the Tabernacle, making it a worthy place for the worship of God - according to His terms.  In fact, frankincense, mentioned in the Bible, is now known to have antiseptic and disinfectant properties.

God gave these specific instructions to Moses because worship of God by Israel in His earthly Tabernacle was a pattern of the worship of God by the angels in His heavenly throne; that is, worship on earth was to be unified with the worship in heaven.

INCENSE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

The use of incense is also recorded in the New Testament. Frankincense was one of the precious gifts that the Three Kings brought in homage to the Baby Jesus, which was a sign of his role as priest in addition to prophet and king.

In his apocalyptic visions of heaven, St. John the Apostle recorded that he saw incense being used in God’s heavenly throne:

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. (Revelation 5:6-8)

In the above passage, incense is identified with the prayers of the saints. In the one below, incense is added to the prayers of the saints by an angel, highlighting the mediation of the angels in our worship of God:

And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God. (Revelation 8:3-4)

INCENSE IN CHRISTIAN LITURGY

From the Catholic Bible passages above in both the Old and the New Testaments, we can see that incense is an important part of the worship of God on earth, first by the Jews, and continued by the Christians.

The smoke of the incense is symbolic of sanctification and purification, as well as symbolic of the prayers of the faithful. It is one of the outward signs of spiritual realities, and that is why it has its place in Christian liturgy.  These two purposes reveal a deeper truth that prayer itself purifies and sanctifies us, making us worthy of worshiping God in heaven for eternity with all the angels and saints.

Many Bible commentators show how the Tabernacle in the Old Testament is a pattern of us, human beings, as temples or dwelling places of the Holy Spirit.  Before we can dwell with God in eternity, there is a need for our purification and sanctification, the removal of sin. One of the ways this happens is through prayer.

This spiritual meaning is evident in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, where prayer is connected with purification, making our prayer a sweet aroma rising up to God:

Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice! (Psalm 141:2)

Listen to me, O you holy sons, and bud like a rose growing by a stream of water; send forth fragrance like frankincense, and put forth blossoms like a lily. Scatter the fragrance, and sing a hymn of praise; bless the Lord for all his works. (Sirach 39: 13-14)

INCENSE CALLS US TO PRAYER

When we see incense being used in our churches, it is meant to remind us of heaven, and that our worship of God in the Christian liturgy is divine in origin. It also reminds us to pray, and that our prayer rises to God like the smoke from the censer, purifying our worship of God, and allowing his Holy Spirit to work in us to make us holy.

“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 allow us to enter into the presence of God."  - Father William Saunders

The video below shows the world-famous giant thurible from St. James Cathedral (Santiago de Compostela) in Spain.

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass transcends space and time, and the use of incense helps the worshiper to enter into this eternal reality through the use of the external senses.

Holy Smokes: How incense symbolizes invisible spiritual realities.

This article has been updated and was originally published in October 2014. © The Catholic Company

Comments

I burn frankincense every day during my meditation. Although the whole room fills with smoke I am hardly aware of it, apart from the beautiful aroma. One peculiarity is that it doesn't set off the smoke alarms.

I believe incense may also be an insect repellent and thus eradicate them from the place of worship, but that is just a theory.
Carol
Carol says
Jan 5 2019 1:06AM
Thank you for teaching us more about God insense and what Insense really means.

From now on I shall teach my children about it and we shall know that when we see insense we have to bow down become still, listen and know that we are in the presence of the Mightiest among all and that is God.

We will know that we have to become silent and one with what is about to happen. Reflect Worship and Glorify God.
Janet Detloff
Janet Detloff says
Dec 30 2018 10:02AM
I have asthma and went to church on Christmas Eve. I had a mask and with the incense, I had to go back to the cry room with the door shut and basically listen to mass. I had to use my rescue inhaler. I was unable to go up front and see and pray in front of the nativity scene. My church is now having incense at every church holiday. So I feel, I can't participate due to not being able to breathe. There were five of us in the cry room who could not tolerate the incense. I am a traditional catholic, but I feel the church is not being respectful knowing that people can not tolerate the smoke. I have told Sr. , but yet it continues. No one seems to care, that you want to be in church to participate not be in a separate room only to listen and not see anything. No wonder, people are questioning the Catholic religion.
Joe Armstrong
Joe Armstrong says
Nov 2 2018 6:54PM
I am not Catholic, but I did find the article enjoyable and educational. Some of the sniping at one another in the comments is depressing. 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 deals with division in the early church. Follow our Lord Jesus Christ is what is important. If you were saved by the blood of Jesus, then you are a part of his Church.
Peter
Peter says
Aug 1 2018 4:52PM
Hello Wendy,

I would argue that you were never a true practicing Catholic. Persons who "so call" leave the Catholic Church do so because they do not know the history of western civilization, and most importantly, the Sacred Scriptures. If you did, you would have stayed put. Simply claiming to have left is a dead giveaway you don't know it. You would have known by the virtue of your Trinitarian baptism, you will always be a member of Christ's church, no matter which of the 30K+ protestant denominations you land at, or who performs the sacrament. My bit of advice to you would be to ask for our Blessed Mother's intercession. That Our Lord put someone in your path that can walk you through some basic church history, apostolic succession, and most especially, the Eucharist.

I would like to recommend 3 books to you. One by Peter Kreeft called "Understanding Suffering". This may help you get through your problem with sacrifice. There are so many graces to be gained through it. Second would be "Rome Sweet Home" written by a former protestant, Scott Hahn. And lastly, "Scripture and Tradition in the Church" by Patrick Madrid. It's a critique of the protestant principle of going by the bible only, which most protestant worship houses claim to do. I hope this helps.

Always remember that the doors are open for you at the Catholic Church. I will pray for your quick return. God bless you,Sister. Pax Christi
Wendy Ritter
Wendy Ritter says
Jun 3 2018 5:16PM
Well i don't have to sacrifice. The incense made me so sick that I go to another church now. I don't think God cares what church you go to nor does he want you to jeopardize your health. WE all worship the same god and the church I attend cares about the needs of their people. I don't need to be entertained but nor do I want to leave church sick. I just don't think that is what the lord would want. I take offense to the person that mentioned sacrifice. Every individual is different and do you really believe that if we were to die from the incense that is ok. Exactly why I am no longer a member of the catholic church.
OSUBAN Richard
OSUBAN Richard says
May 17 2018 11:21PM
wow...I loved this...I had been wondering about this mistery of incense and smoke...now I know and can explain it and know the references.
Cheryl
Cheryl says
Apr 14 2018 10:29AM
The article did not address the fact that ghe first, early Christians did not use incense because it was sacrilege to use incense outside of the temple. Also the reason, some people feel so good, is because incense has the same effect on the brain as marijuana.

I did a lot of research as I ended up with incense poisoning. The cause was explained by an EPA report showing how the body uses amounts of thyroid hormone to synthesize incense. Since I take thyroid, my levels would drop very low even with residual incense in the air. This is not fun, it feels like my heart is having a hard time beating and my body temperature goes very low. Some people with or surviving cancer are advised to stay away because of the carcinogens.

Remember God gave the rules to the Jews in the Old Testament after they left Egypt where they had borrowed many pagan practices. Revolations says prayers are like incense going up to heaven. Like is a simile or a pictorial example. If we wanted to be literal, the incense should go up and out of the roof not cover the people.
Anne Marie Banfield
Anne Marie Banfield says
Jan 18 2018 3:58PM
I really enjoyed reading this article explaining the use of incense in the RC Mass. I grew up in a small town and we went to church every Sunday and Holy day of Obligation. This article also reminded me of the blessing of our home every year. Our Polish priest would come to each house and my mother would have some kind of incense? burning on low on the top of the stove while he went around the rooms and said the prayers and then wrote in chalk above the living room door. I really miss these traditions and my mom. She just passed away in October.
Sandy
Sandy says
Jan 15 2018 12:24AM
Would using incense in my home be improper? . Sometimes I wonder if I could do this to clean, purify and perhaps help relieve some of all the negativity that seems to be taking over.
Hi Sandy, yes, you can use incense in the home.
Alice
Alice says
Jan 14 2018 6:59PM
All incense I've encountered triggers an asthma attack. My daughter's asthma is so bad that she either leaves church before the incense is lit or I have to drive her to the ER. Please limit the use to just one Mass per weekend.
Bill
Bill says
Dec 14 2017 8:46AM
It is a wonderful tradition. My friends and I were wondering about it. We put the Old Testament practice together on our own, but the rest we did not.

When I attend the Mass, it isn't used, but of course it's merely a symbol. So I suppose that's why. I've never been big on symbolism anyways. I'm a simple guy haha. Great article!
J. Frazier York
J. Frazier York says
Nov 6 2017 2:32PM
As an Eastern Catholic where incense is (for most of our churches) ordinarily required as part of the Liturgy and the Daily Cycle (at Matins and Vespers), there are MANY aromatic alternatives. I find often in R.C. churches that, on the few times it is used, many celebrations use HORRIBLE blends of incense that are virtually assured to choke almost anyone.

I would happily recommend to parish leaders that a number of sweet and most pleasant blends, especially those which are derived from flowers (like roses or lilies of the valley) that will generally not create discomfort or (consequently) distraction at sacred worship. Many of these are also produced by monastic communities, and right here in the US, so by using them you also provide income for monks and nuns who depend on it to maintain their way of life.
Moyo
Moyo says
Nov 3 2017 2:44AM
It makes me sneeze!
Judith Rosa
Judith Rosa says
Sep 10 2017 6:09PM
I didn't know their was an allergy free incense. I can check if your church uses the allergy free. Otherwise, when I start to wheeze and cough from my asthma, I have my inhalator to rely on for my lungs, then fresh air to relieve my headache. Thanks to the person who said we need to make sacrifices.
George Oetker
George Oetker says
Sep 10 2017 6:07PM
I was a mass server from first grade through high school and 1st year of college. I used to love to be able to light the charcoal and carry it out before the altar for benediction; and then open the door of the holder so that the priest could put the incense on the charcoal, and watch all that beautiful smoke swirl upwards toward Heaven.

What was the carrier of the charcoal/incense called?
Charles Francis
Charles Francis says
Sep 4 2017 12:00PM
I am an adult Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister who serves at Funeral Masses.

Our Pastor has tremor and has difficulty putting incense in the thurible, is it legal for me to put the incense in myself prior to handing him the thurible?
Carolina Elias
Carolina Elias says
Jul 25 2017 10:40PM
To my brothers and sisters of little faith complaining of the incense: The church is not an entertainment venue where you are the patron and the host has to accommodate your needs. You are going to worship our blessed Lord, give thanks for all His good deeds, give alms, and make a SACRIFICE. You are not going to die from the smoke unless it is the will of God, then it wouldn't matter if you were at church or not you would die anyway. What truly is sad is that we who call ourselves Christians want to put our comfort ahead of loving God. Still I have hope because even faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains as said by our Lord, Jesus. I write this comment as edification and not to put my brothers and sisters down. I pray our Lord liberates you from The ailments that prevent you from enjoying and fully participating in the holy mass.
Monica Grote
Monica Grote says
Jun 11 2017 5:38PM
I understand the symbolism of incense and it probably covered up a lot of unsavory smells like bad breath, body odor, the decaying dead bodies of worshippers, animal sacrifices, etc in ancient times. However, we live in modern times and a little goes a long way. They use the same amount in the incense container for large cathedral churches or basilicas as they do in small churches and chapels. It is overwhelming in a small church, especially if you have respiratory problems. Please let the clergy know to announce ahead of time when the Masses will use incense and that the amount of incense should be proportionate to the size of each church.

Today I witnessed 5 families who left choking from incense in our small mountain church. In Granby, Colorado. We got up early, showered, dressed in nice clothes and then drove 23 miles, one way, to attend Mass, but had to leave because we couldn't breathe. Sad.
Mike George
Mike George says
Mar 12 2017 10:47AM
These articles make the use of incense more explainable and I thank the author. I'm a life long Methodist but watch EWTN on a regular basis. I ask Goggle question all the time about the Catholic Church. Incense is not used in the Methodist church but I think it should be.
Sharon
Sharon says
Feb 9 2017 8:02AM
I have asthma , and yet, when the incense is used at High Mass it doesn't bother me, in fact it actually helps and I have a tendency to breath it in as deeply as I can. This is so wonderful to me.
Tonette
Tonette says
Jan 1 2017 12:09AM
I had long been wondering why incense is burned during the mass. Now I understand. It is fitting when it is used for cleansing and sanctification and to lift up our prayers to be joined with those of the angels and saints. Beautiful.
Cleansing? Yeah...People didn't use toilet paper back then. Or under arm deodorant, shampoo or soap. They stunk like hell. One way to clear the air for the moment of smelly body odor.
Billy
Billy says
Oct 7 2016 2:05AM
Nicholas, if the pope was doing something with incense, contrary to God's word or God's orders, wouldn't a flame come out and consume him, as depicted in the scripture that you use as reference?
sylvester Berinyuy
sylvester Berinyuy says
Jul 8 2016 3:09AM
Great article. hope many people come to read it

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Commentary by

Gretchen Filz Gretchen Filz

Gretchen is a Lay Dominican with a passion for fostering an increase in Catholic faith and devotion through content writing and journalism. She works as a digital content writer, creator, and marketer for The Catholic Company. In addition to blogging at GetFed.com, she is also editor of the MorningOffering.com daily devotional email and author at GoodCatholic.com. She holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics and converted to the Catholic Church in 2011. She is also active in R.C.I.A., pro-life work, and various faith-based web projects.

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