Why the Church uses Incense at Mass

“And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.” (Rev 8:3-4)

Smells and Bells

Most Catholics are familiar with the expression “smells and bells” which is invoked to describe the use of incense and altar bells (or sanctus bells), usually as they are associated with a more traditionally offered Mass. For over 800 years altar bells have been heard at such moments as the Sanctus, the epiclesis, as well as the elevation.

While the use of bells and incense sadly decreased in the decades following the implementation of the New Mass, in recent years they are making a comeback as more parishes rediscover their liturgical tradition.

A Venerable Tradition

In his classic work The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (first published in 1912), Fr. Adrian Fortescue references the use of incense as a “common object of sacrifice to both pagans and Jews (Lev. 21:6; Lk. 1:9-11).” Fr. Fortescue continues: 

“Moreover, the Bible plainly suggested its use. Not only the Old Testament, but Lk. 1:9, the incense offered by the Wise Men (Mt. 2:11), and the incense at the heavenly altar in Apoc. 8:3-5 made its use, as soon as Christian worship began to be adorned with symbolic ceremonies, inevitable.” (The Mass, pp. 228-229)

Further, the use of incense within Christian liturgies appears to be referenced as far back as the 4th century by St. Ambrose. The Liturgy of St. James which is found in such eastern rites as the Syrian Catholic, Malankara Catholic and Marionite also incorporates the use of incense. Dating back to at least the fifth century, this liturgy is one of the oldest Christian liturgies in use today. 

Tradition & Symbolism

Traditionally the Church incenses that which is sacred. This is why the altar is incensed during the Mass (as pictured above): because it is another symbol for Christ and so it is reverenced.

The Traditional Latin Mass is replete with this symbolism. Indeed, the Missal calls for the use of incense during these moments of the Mass:

  • At the beginning, when the altar, crucifix, and celebrant are incensed.
  • The Gospel is incensed just prior to it being sung.
  • At the offertory, oblations, the altar, the cross, the priest, the deacon, subdeacon, choir, and assembly are all incensed (in this order).
  • The host and chalice after each consecration are incensed as they are elevated.

The Sense of Smell

Our olfactory receptors are directly connected to the limbic system, which science tells us is the most ancient and primitive part of the brain, and believed to be the seat of emotion. Put simply, olfactory perception is our sense of smell.

For most of us, the smell of incense at Mass is something unique and distinct from the scents we encounter the rest of the week. Through its use of incense, the Church finds yet another way to communicate to us that we are engaging the sacred when we participate in the Mass. Our sense of smell becomes another way that the temporal acquiesces to the eternal, thereby reinforcing the beauty and sacredness of the liturgy which we have entered. 

A Scent from Heaven

Our faith tells us that there is but one Church. Those of us on earth (the Church Militant) join together in prayer at the Holy Mass with those members, the saints, already in heaven (the Church Triumphant). The rich symbolism and theological significance of incense should be more than enough to encourage its use within the liturgy.

A lengthy quote from the great nineteenth century abbot and liturgist Dom Prosper Gueranger beautifully captures the use of incense at Mass and its direct association with the eternal worship offered our Lord in Heaven:

“The blessing, which the Priest gives it (the incense) in the Mass, raises this production of nature to the supernatural order.  Holy Church has borrowed this ceremony from Heaven itself, where St. John witnessed it. In his Apocalypse, he saw an Angel, standing, with a golden censer, near the Altar, on which was the Lamb, with four-and-twenty elders around him. (Apoc. 8:3) He describes this Angel to us, as offering to God the prayers of the Saints, which are symbolized by the incense. Thus, our Holy Mother the Church, the faithful Bride of Christ, wishes to do as Heaven does; and taking advantage of the veil of its mysterious secrets being even thus partially raised up by the Beloved Disciple, she borrows, for our earth’s imitation, the tribute of honour thus paid, yonder above, to the glory of her Spouse.” (The Holy Mass, pp. 12-13) 

Just a few things to ponder the next time you are blessed enough to experience the smells and bells of our beautiful Catholic Mass.

An earlier version of this article appeared at this site on July 28, 2013.

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