Every Sunday at many Catholic parishes, an altar server lifts the top of a golden censer (also called a thurible) which hangs on a chain and the priest drops a spoonful of incense onto the burning coals inside. He blesses it and a fragrant smoke rises. The priest bows and swings the censer over different objects in the sanctuary and sometimes over the congregation until the scent of incense fills the church.
Is this just a Catholic ritual? What does it mean and why do we do it?
First, incense is an aromatic substance obtained from certain resinous trees which give off smoke or perfume when it’s burned. The Church uses incense to purify and sanctify, as well as to express reverence and prayer:
“Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening sacrifice.” (Ps. 141:2)
From ancient times, pagans and Jews used incense for religious and other purposes. In Jewish rituals, it was used with offerings and as part of unbloody sacrifices. (Lev. 6:15) In Exodus 30, God commanded Moses to build an altar of incense.
At Jesus’ birth, the Magi gave Him a gift of frankincense (Matt. 2:11). According to the fourth century Latin poet Juvencus, the incense was offered to Jesus as God, the gold was offered to Him as King and the myrrh to Him as Man.
In Scripture and in the Church
While there’s no evidence that Christians offered incense to God in the first centuries of the Church, they were probably familiar with it from Jewish religious practices and the New Testament (Luke 1:10; Rev. 8:3-5). After the earliest recorded use of incense at Mass in the fifth century, it began to be incorporated more regularly into the Liturgy starting in the 11th century.
In our day, incense is optional in any form of the Mass during these parts of the Liturgy, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), a detailed document which governs celebration of the Mass:
- The entrance procession;
- At the beginning of Mass, to incense the cross and altar;
- At the procession before the Gospel and the proclamation of the Gospel itself;
- After the bread and the chalice have been placed on the altar, to incense the offerings, the cross and the altar, as well as the priest and the people.
- At the elevation of the host and the chalice after the Consecration.
How many swings of the censer?
Before incensing anything, the priest (or altar server if they’re incensing the congregation) bows profoundly to the person or object being incensed, except for the altar and the offerings for the Mass, and then swings the censer. The more dignified the person or object being honored, the more swings:
- Three times: The Most Blessed Sacrament, a relic of the Holy Cross and images of the Lord exposed for public veneration, the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass, the altar cross, the Book of the Gospels, the paschal candle, the priest and the people.
- Twice: relics and images of the saints exposed for public veneration, but only at the beginning of the celebration following the incensation of the altar.
- Once: If the altar is freestanding from the wall, the priest incenses walking around it. If the altar is not freestanding, the priest incenses it while walking first to the right side and then to the left.
At the final commendation at a funeral Mass, the priest may incense the coffin, both as a sign of honor to the deceased’s body and as a sign of the faithful’s prayers for the deceased rising to God.
Anything you’re wondering about?
When it comes to Church practices like this, it helps me just to know what’s going on and why. If there are other aspects of the liturgy or Church teaching that you’ve been curious about, send in your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll ask an expert.