Dec 4, 2005

Our Prayers Ascend To The Heavenly Altar As Incense

In Catholic worship the whole human person is involved, spiritually and physically. Each of the five senses are touched and lifted to the adoration of the Blessed Trinity. We are created with physical bodies and so we ought to invest our worship of God with our whole being omitting no single part of ourselves. Hence, I turn to contemplating the use of incense with its polyvalent mystical meanings, the practicality of its use, and its appropriate place in Catholic worship.

Incense is a resin made from tree sap blended with other spices for aroma. It is mentioned by classical writers1 and is found in virtually every culture in the world. Some incense artifacts are thousands of years old. It was used as a perfume or type of air freshener long before the Glade Plug-in or the aerosol spray can was invented. Certainly, we can imagine some practical function for liturgical celebrations in the days before the advent of air-conditioning and regular bathing. Definitely its use and connection with regards to religion is testified to by a multitude of religions.

In the Old Testament, Moses was directed to build an altar for the purpose of burning incense. The altar was to be made of the same material as the Ark of the Covenant. Aaron the High Priest was required to burn incense upon it in the morning and in the evening. No unholy incense could be used, nor burnt offerings, nor cereal offerings and no pouring of libations, but once a year the blood of the sin offering of atonement was poured upon its horns.2 God even instructs Moses how the incense should be made and commands that the incense thus made be set aside and used for no profane purposes.3 The offering of incense and sacrifice are intimately connected for this is the office of the priest, "Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice."4 The cloud of smoke produced by the burning of incense also recalls the dwelling of the Lord upon the Tabernacle.5

Yet not merely the external burning of incense or the mere ritual of sacrifice is sufficient. The ceremonies of the Catholic Church are neither empty ceremonies nor meaningless rituals! The priest stands before the people in virtue of his office of the Church, in the person of Christ. It is Christ who consecrates, Christ who blesses, and Christ who incenses, through the mediation of His Church by the ministry of His priests. The prophet Malachi foretold the Eucharistic sacrifice, in that famous passage, "For from the rising of the sun to its setting may 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."6 Here we see that God Himself speaks of how intimately connected incense is to the Holy Eucharist.

The Fathers unanimously teach that the Wise Men from the East, by the offering of incense (frankincense) intended to symbolically adore the Child Jesus.7 It follows then from both the practice of Temple liturgy from which our own liturgies are developed and from the interpretations of scripture given by the Fathers that incense found its proper place also in the worship of Christians. Our first proof of its early use comes from Pseudo-Denis the Areopagite in the East, who writes about the 4th century, "After the bishop has recited at the altar of God the holy prayer, he commences the incensing of the altar and walks around the entire circumference of the sacred place."8 In the west, St Ambrose comments on the apparition of the angel to Zachary, "We also when incensing the altar and when offering the Holy Sacrifice, have an angel at our side."9

The rituals of incensing, in both Eastern and Western rites, are splendid rites that contribute greatly to the solemnity of divine worship but also symbolically represent the mysteries of faith and the virtues of the Christian life. The Council of Trent counts the rites of incensing explicitly to be included among visible signs of religion and piety, ordered to the inciting and elevating of the mind to the devout contemplation of heavenly things.10 The Council of Vatican II repeats the purpose of these rites adding that each affects us in particular ways.11 Many of the Popes make allusion to incense as representing the prayers of the Church and of the faithful.12

Incense can be likened to the fonts of holy water that are present at the entrance of Churches. The rites of incensing are sacramentals by virtue of the blessing received at the time of use. In the former Roman Missal this was done by some extraordinarily beautiful prayers and the sign of the cross, in the current Roman Missal this is done by virtue of the priest making the sign of the cross only. Nevertheless this constitutes a blessing of the incense to be used, thus as a sacramental incense is a means to secure divine protection and blessing. By virtue of the blessing the incense is especially made efficacious for expelling or keeping at a distance Satan from the soul, and for affording us a powerful protection against the deceit and malice, the snares and the attacks of evil spirits, a protection we greatly need at the altar and during the celebration of the Holy Mysteries.

"Incensing is done, as a mark of honor and adoration; as a symbolic of the holocaust of Christ and of all Christians, which ascends by the fire of charity in the odor of sweetness; as an indication of the good odor of Christ diffused in His Church and throughout the universe; and as representing the prayers of the saints on earth and in heaven, which ascend from hearts inflamed with love to the throne of God."13 "The fragrant incense burning in the fire is a symbol of the solemn expression of the interior sentiments of sacrifice and of prayer acceptable to God. Incense exhales and breathes forth its inmost soul when it is consumed in the fire and dissolved in fragrant clouds of smoke that rise heavenward. It symbolizes man’s spirit of sacrifice or his life of sacrifice because he consumes himself with all his faculties in the fire of love for the honor and service of God. The odor of incense that rises from the burning grains and ascends in its fragrance, also symbolizes prayer. Prayer is the surrender of the soul to God, the elevation of the mind and spirit to Heaven, the aspiration of the heart toward goods invisible and eternal. If the heart, like incense, is placed in the fire of divine love and ardent devotion, then our prayer will free itself from all that is earthly and will ascend to the Lord as a sweet and precious perfume."14

"The thurible or censer, is a symbol of Christ’s humanity wherein is hidden the fullness of the divinity as a consuming fire. It is, also, a symbol of Christ who is the well spring of all graces, which, like most fragrant odors, are diffused over the whole world. The thurible is, moreover, an image of the Church, which has within her keeping the celestial fire of the divine spirit and which, the more she is disturbed by tribulations, the more copiously emits the fragrance of her virtues. Finally, the thurible is a type of the soul inflamed by the fire of charity as is denoted by the words of the celebrant, 'May the Lord enkindle in us the fire of His love and the flame of everlasting charity.'"15

In fine, incense is so intimately connected to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and so suitably conformed to the condition of man that it ought not to be omitted from the sacred liturgy except for good reason. I personally find it so flawlessly expressive of Christian virtue and so adept at lifting my private prayers to the contemplation of the Divine Majesty that I regularly employ its use at home. Our private prayer converges with the prayers of the whole Mystical Body of Christ that lead us ultimately back again into the sacred liturgy from which they are formed. They are upheld by the intercession of Holy Mother Church, by the mediation of the saints and angels. They are brought to the very throne of God by the angel of Revelation.16

1 Ovid, Metamorph.: 6, 14; Virgil, Aeneid: 1, 146.

2 Ex 30 1-10.

3 Ex 30:34-37; Cf. Num 4:7; Wis 18:20-21; Sir 45:16.

4 Ps 141:2.

5 Ex 40:32; Lev 16:2; 1 Chronicles 5:13.

6 Mal 1:11.

7 St. Fulgentius, Sermon 4; The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; Dogmatically, Liturgically and Ascetically Explained, Rev Dr. Nicholas Gihr, 6th edition, B. Herder Book Co, 1924, p 371.

8 Pseudo-Denis, The Hierarchy of the Church III, 2; Gihr, 370-71 ft3.

9 Gihr, 371 ft4.

10 Sess. 22 V; Gihr, 372 ft 3.

11 Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7.

12 Qui Nuper, Pius IX; Mira Circa Nos, Gregory IX; Augustissimae Virginis Mariae, Leo XIII; Mit Brennender Sorge, Pius XI; Menti Nostrae, Pius XII; Au Millieu Des Sollicitudes, Leo XIII; Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, Pius XI; Ex Quo, Benedict XIV; Missale Romanum, Paul VI.

13 The Holy Mass Explained, Fr. F. X. Schouppe, 1891, p. 59.

14 Gihr, 373.

15 Schouppe, 33-35.

16 Rev 5:8; 8:3-4.

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