Q. Why does the Church use incense in liturgies?
A. Great question. The Catholic Church is a church of scents, sights and sounds. Incense certainly adds to the sights and especially scents. I think Catholics experience incense most often at funerals. Incense is also used at solemnities and feast days in the Church’s liturgical year. As a priest, I appreciate the symbolism and engagement that incense brings to the Mass.
Incense is aromatic biotic (plant) material which is usually mixed with oil that releases fragrant smoke when burned.
There are many Scriptural references to incense, most notably Psalm 141 and Revelation 5:8 and 8:3. For the people of the Old and New Testaments, incense was seen as a visible image of our prayers rising up to God. Thus incense, which is intriguing in sight and fragrance, is very appropriate in the liturgy.
A note of explanation: the sacred vessel used for incense is called a censer or thurible. Inside is a charcoal (similar to what is used in your home grill) which, when lit, first becomes red then white-hot. Incense then is placed on top of the white-hot charcoal that produces smoke which comes out of the perforated lid of the thurible or censer. Some people ask if the “clinking of the chain” is part of the ceremony. No. That just happens when the chain inadvertently hits the censer or thurible.
This question was answered by a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln. Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.