November 19, 2017
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
“For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich;
but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Incense has been used in sacred worship since time immemorial, not only in Christian and Jewish worship, but in all kinds of Pagan worship as well. So why is incense so common in worship, and what is it for?
Incense serves two main purposes: To be a sweet-smelling offering to God, and to be symbolic of our prayers ascending into heaven. Just as the sweet smell of the incense is pleasing to us, so we pray that our sacrifice would be pleasing to God. And as we offer our prayers to God on high, we see the incense rising from our altar to heaven. We use incense, a physical, material thing, to show our love to God. Of course, God doesn’t need incense—He doesn’t need to smell it or see it—but as human beings we use material things to express our spiritual devotion.
As we hear in the Psalms: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2).
The use of incense in Jewish worship began at Mount Sinai when God instructed Moses to build an altar on which to burn incense: “You shall make an altar to burn incense upon…. And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it… a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations” (Exodus 30:1,7,8).
In the Old Testament, God that a new sacrifice and offering would one day come, and as we hear the Lord speak through the Prophet Malachi: “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” (Malachi 1:11). This prophecy is fulfilled in Christ and the sacrifice of Himself on the Cross, because it is the pure offering and perfect sacrifice. Furthermore, this perfect sacrifice of Christ is made present once again on the altar every Mass. This is why the Mass is also called the perfect sacrifice, for it is a renewal of the one sacrifice of Christ. That is one reason why we use incense during the Mass, as it is symbolic of this prophecy from Malachi being fulfilled.
Additionally, incense is also mentioned in the book of Revelation. We read: “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full if incense, which are the prayers of the saints…. 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” (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4).
During the Mass, incense can be used to bless the altar, the crucifix, the book of the Gospels, the priest, the people, the bread and wine, and the Body and Blood of Christ. All of these things are blessed with incense because they are set apart for God. This is why not only the physical things used at Mass are incensed, but also the priest and people are incense, for through our baptism, we have all been set apart for God.
Thus, when you see incense at Mass, envision the prayers of your heart rising to the throne of God along with the smoke; and when you smell the incense, consider how pleasing the sacrifice of the Mass is to the Father in heaven!
You are in my daily prayers.
God bless you,