Dear Friends,

One of the most sensual elements of the Sacred Liturgy is the use of incense which often is misunderstood and often overlooked.   Using incense in sacred worship is a practice the Church adopted from our Jewish ancestral heritage.   The use of incense is mentioned on various occasions in the Book of Leviticus which describes various ceremonial atonement rituals.   The Levite priests used incense along with the thanksgiving (eucharistia) offerings of fruit, oil, wine and unbloody animal sacrifices.   Aaron was instructed in the Book of Exodus by God to use “sweet smelling incense” (Ex. 30:7) in the morning offering on an altar.    So common was the use of incense as part of Jewish ceremonial worship that it shows up in the religious hymnody in the Book of Psalms: “Lord, let my prayer rise before you like incense, my hands like an evening offering.” (Ps. 141:2).  

In the Gospel of Luke we learn that at the time of the Lord Jesus, incense was offered by the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem, as Luke describes Zachariah’s duties the day he learn of St. John the Baptist’s conception.   The Book of Revelations, John’s vision of the Heavenly liturgy, “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”.  (Rev. 8:3).   John describes incense as symbolizing  “the prayer of the saints” (Rev. 8:5).  Amalarius of Metz (a liturgical historian of the 9th Century) describes liturgical incense as that which is “enkindled in the heart by the fire of God's love and exhaling the odor of Christ, rises up a pleasing offering in His sight”.  

The use of incense has characterized the solemnity of the Sacred Liturgy from (as early as evidence suggests) around the 6th century in the Church.   It is a ritual act that symbolizes not only the raising of our hearts, minds and prayer, but also the mysterious and sacred dignity of God himself.   In the Eastern Church, the smell or fragrance of the incense symbolizes the dignity of the solemnity or feast day being celebrated.   The West, incense is more a visual sign of the “cloud of mystery” and profound awe of the presence of Almighty God.  

It is a practice of the Church to use incense in solemn Masses which includes the Sunday Masses as well as other great feast days.   Its’ practice and use is rooted in Sacred Scripture, but also adds to the solemn nature of our Eucharistic celebration.  Incense is also used to bless, as holy water is used, or to “set aside” for sacred use people and objects.   In the Mass, not only the gifts of bread and wine, but after the consecration it is used to symbolize the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist.    The altar, the crucifix, and during the Easter season the Paschal Candle are also incensed to signify their being set aside for worship.   The priest and the people are also incensed separately, symbolizing not only the difference of their office in the liturgical assembly but also their participation in the liturgy that is the foretaste of the heavenly liturgy of St. John’s vision.  

As you have noticed it is a practice that I have recovered and will continue to employ to help enhance our liturgical celebration and encourage us to enter into the solemn presence of the Lord.   I realize that often it takes getting used to the smoke or the smell of incense.   Unfortunately its use has been regulated to only special celebrations, but I wish to emphasize that Sundays are meant to be a continual celebration of Easter Sunday and therefore I do not wish to diminish its beauty, solemnity or importance.   Allow the incense not only to serve as visual rising of your prayers to God, but also it’s mysterious aroma and cloud to raise your thoughts and hearts to the altar of God in heaven.

In the Lord Jesus,

Fr. Vasquez 


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