The Use of Incenseincense

"Our Holy Church has always recognized the value of rites and ceremonial observances, not only for increasing the solemnity of her services but for arousing a spirit of devotion in those who minister at them and those who attend them.

And because a religious practice happened to be of Jewish origin or had been used in the rites of [ancient peoples], the Church does not therefore look upon it as something to be necessarily condemned or forbidden. She has taken some of the details of her liturgy not only from the ceremonial law of Moses, but even from [pre-Christian] worship....

Expressing Homage to the Deity.

The Catholic Church knows that in every form of worship, in every effort of man to do homage to his concept of the Deity, there are many practices that are commendable, inasmuch as they are a good expression of religious sentiment, and she has adapted the best of these to the requirements of her ritual. Thus, for instance, we find in Catholic worship the use of holy water, which was not only a Jewish but a pagan practice; the wearing of medals..., common to all the religions of antiquity; and the use of incense at religious functions...

The Incense and the Censer.

Censer and BoatWhat is incense? It is a granulated aromatic resin, obtained from certain trees in Eastern and tropical countries, especially from those of the terebinth family. When sprinkled upon a glowing coal in the "censer", it burns freely and emits an abundant white smoke of very fragrant odor. Various spices are sometimes mixed with the resin to increase its fragrance.

The censer is a vessel in the form of a bowl, provided with a cover, the whole being generally adorned with gilding and ornaments and suspended from chains, so that it may be swung to and fro for the better diffusion of the sweet odor. It is held in both hands when being used, elevated to the height of the eyes, while the left hand holds the ends of the chains against the breast. The censer is swung forward toward the person or thing to be incensed, once or oftener, according to the requirements of the rubrics.

The incense is kept in a vessel known as a "boat," from its peculiar shape, and is transferred to the censer by means of a small spoon. [The censer is also called a thurible.]

Of Ancient Origin.

'What is the history of incense? First of all, we find in the Scriptures many references to its use in Jewish worship. In the sanctuary of the Tabernacle of God an altar was provided for the burning of incense, morning and night [CCC 2581]. It is thus described in the ritual which Moses gave to the Israelites, in the book of Exodus: "Take unto thee spices . . . of sweet savor and the clearest frankincense . . . and when thou hast beaten all into very small powder, thou shalt set of it before the Tabernacle. Most holy shall this incense be unto you."[Ex. 30:4-38.] It is also mentioned in the Psalms and by the prophets Isaias, Jeremias and Malachias, as well as in the Gospel account of the vision of Zacharias, the aged priest, who was "offering incense in the temple of the Lord" when he received the promise of God that a son would be given to him. [Luke 1:8-11.] [For a serch of New Testament instances of the word "incense" in the NIV, click here.]

In the ceremonies of [pre-christian religion] incense had an important part. Its use is mentioned by Ovid and Virgil as a feature of the rites of Roman worship, being probably adopted from the Eastern nations with whom the Romans had come into contact. Among these, especially the Assyrians and Egyptians, it has been known almost from the dawn of history. The carvings of the tombs and temples of Egypt represent kings offering homage to the gods by burning incense in censers much like those used in our Catholic churches at the present day.

[The religion of ancient Egypt used incense frequently during temple worship, and when the idol would be moved in procession. In pagan Rome, incense was also used at funerals. See Myrrh.]
In Catholic Worship.

When did the Church begin to use it? We do not know exactly. There is no evidence that it was employed in Christian worship until about the fifth century, although when we consider to what an extent it was used in the rites of Judaism and how many times it is mentioned in the Scriptures, it seems probable that incensing, as a part of the Catholic ceremonial, goes back to an earlier day. It came into use in the East before the Western or Latin Church adopted it, for the Orientals in the early centuries had a much more elaborate ritual than did the Roman Church. Incense was used at first at the Gospel of the Mass only, but in succeeding centuries other incensations were introduced, not only at the Mass but at other services of the Church.

At the present day the use of incense forms a rather prominent feature of the more solemn services of our Church.

'235. The use of incense is optional in any form of Mass:
a. during the entrance procession;
b. at the beginning of Mass, to incense the altar;
c. at the procession and proclamation of the gospel; [see sec.1154 of the Catholic Catechism.]
d. at the preparation of the gifts, to incense them, as well as the altar, priest, and people;
e. at the showing of the eucharistic bread and chalice after the consecration.
236. The priest puts the incense in the censer and blesses it with the sign of the cross, saying nothing.
This is the way to incense the altar:
a. If the altar is freestanding, the priest incenses it as he walks around it.
b. If the altar is not freestanding, he incenses it while walking first to the right side, then to the left.
If there is a cross on or beside the altar, he incenses it before he incenses the altar. If the cross is behind the altar, the priest incenses it when he passes in front of it.' General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Fourth Edition, 1975. And see, §§ 276-77 in the new General Instruction.

The censer [has been] swung as a mark of respect before the celebrant, ministers and assisting clergy at a Mass, and incense is used also in many of the public services of the Church - in processions, blessings and other functions, and in the [sevices] for the dead. Not only persons but inanimate things are thus honored -- things which are in themselves sacred, such as relics; things which have been previously blessed, such as crucifixes, altars and the book of the Gospels; and things to which a blessing is being given, such as bodies of the dead and sepulchres.

On Holy Saturday, when the paschal candle is solemnly blessed in each parish church, five grains of incense are inserted into it, each being encased usually in a piece of wax resembling a nail. These are fixed in the wax of the candle in the form of a cross.

[In the past w]hen an altar or altar-stone [was] consecrated, grains of incense [were] burned upon it, and other grains [were] put into the "sepulchre," that is, the cavity containing the relics, thus symbolizing the prayers and intercession which will be offered in Heaven by the Saint whose sacred relics [were] enclosed within the altar on which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass [would] be offered.

The Symbolism of Incense.

The mystical meaning of incense is not difficult to comprehend. By its burning it symbolizes the zeal with which the faithful should be animated; by its sweet fragrance, the odor of Christian virtue; by its rising smoke, the ascent of prayer before the throne of the Almighty. As St. John tells us in the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelations: "The smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended before God from the hand of the Angel."*

[Also, incense creates a cloud. A cloud is a symbol for God the Father. For example at the Transfiguration, Matt. 17:5, a cloud appears and from it comes the Voice of God. In Acts 1:8 Jesus enters a cloud. Also in Exodus, the people are lead by a pillar of cloud, Exod. 13:22; and in Exodus 40:34 the cloud settled on the meeting tent and the glory of the Lord filled it. Thus the cloud of incense should remind us of God whose presence is revealed by a cloud.]

The use of incense, then, is a beautiful example of the wisdom of our Church, which adapts to our own purposes all that is good in every creed, all that will typify the spirit with which she wished her children to be animated, all that will aid them to attain to true fervor, all that will add solemnity to the worship which she offers to God."

Except for the comtmeporary rubrics on incensation and material in brackets, the text is by Rev. John F. Sullivan, The Externals of the Catholic Church, P.J. Kenedy & Sons (1918). Imprimatur +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of NY, March 27, 1918.

See The article on Incense in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

"Incense is used only occasionally in Roman Catholic Churches but is used for every Divine Liturgy in the Eastern Catholic Churches. Incense traditionally signifies the prayers of the Church rising to the throne of God. During the Divine Liturgy, incense is directed to the people several times, to the Gospel book, the icons, the altar and the clergy. Censing is a tradition going back into Old Testament times." Sacramentals of the Eastern Catholic Church.

"The Eastern Catholic Churches are to zealously maintain and practice the use of incense in the celebration [of the Divine Services] .... because it belongs in a special way to their own tradition. Every custom to the contrary is to be modified." Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Churches, 1996. See Frankincense.

Places in Scripture where Incense is Mentioned.
Sec. 2581. "For the People of God, the Temple [of the Jews] was to be the place of their education in prayer: pilgrimages, feasts and sacrifices, the evening offering, the INCENSE, and the bread of the Presence ('shewbread') - all these signs of the holiness and glory of God Most High and Most Near were appeals to and ways of prayer...." Catechism of the Catholic Church.
[The scriptural links below are to the NAB for comparason.]

Exod. 30:7-8. "Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations."

Exod. 30:34 -37. "The LORD said to Moses: Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (an equal part of each), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; and you shall beat some of it into powder, and put part of it before the covenant in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. When you make incense according to this composition, you shall not make it for yourselves; it shall be regarded by you as holy to the LORD."


"Num. 4:7 Over the table of the bread of the Presence they shall spread a blue cloth, and put on it the plates, the dishes for incense, the bowls, and the flagons for the drink offering; the regular bread also shall be on it;


Ps. 141:2 Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. See footnote 2 for this Psalm in the NAB.

Prov. 27:9 Perfume and incense make the heart glad,


Mal. 1:11 For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts. See NIV.


Wis. 18:20 The experience of death touched also the righteous, and a plague came upon the multitude in the desert, but the wrath did not long continue. Wis. 18:21 For a blameless man was quick to act as their champion; he brought forward the shield of his ministry, prayer and propitiation by incense; he withstood the anger and put an end to the disaster, showing that he was your servant.


Sir. 39:14-16. "Send out fragrance like incense, and put forth blossoms like a lily. Scatter the fragrance, and sing a hymn of praise; bless the Lord for all his works. Ascribe majesty to his name and give thanks to him with praise, with songs on your lips, and with harps; this is what you shall say in thanksgiving: 'All the works of the Lord are very good, and whatever he commands will be done at the appointed time.'"


Sir. 45:16 He chose him out of all the living to offer sacrifice to the Lord, incense and a pleasing odor as a memorial portion, to make atonement for the people."


Rev. 5:8 "When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints."

Rev. 8:3-4 "Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel."

The scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved. All copyrighted material is used for religious and educational purposes in reliance on 17USC107.

  Holy Water | Pray with the Saints | Church Bells | Vestments | Holy Oils | Candles

Home to Sacred Heart Church
Awaken to Prayer
Index to all parish web pages.