What is the significance of the incense? Why is it used during certain portions of the Mass, what is it’s history?
Incense has a rich significance stemming from our Jewish roots and anticipating our heavenly goal.
Jewish roots: we can think back to the first time God appeared to Moses in a mysterious cloud and how Moses entered into that cloud (Exodus 24:18). The ‘cloud’ has always been understood as a sign of God’s presence dwelling in that location.
Heavenly goal: we can look to the book of Revelation, which is a vision of heaven as described by the beloved disciple John. The context of Revelation is a liturgy — the “wedding feast of the lamb” (Jesus). The wedding feast is a vision of the groom (Jesus) and his bride (the Church). Our earthly liturgy is meant to be a participation in this heavenly liturgy; it truly is the place where heaven and earth kiss. In Revelation 5:8 we read “Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones.” Note that the heavenly liturgy has incense and so too does our earthly participation in that heavenly liturgy.
Viewing incense through the lenses of our Jewish roots and our heavenly goal helps us to understand its significance to Catholics.
1) It denotes the presence of God. Thus, the incense is used in all those places where God’s presence is most tangible during the Mass; at the altar, over the Book of the Gospels, around the priest, and towards the people of God gathered at Mass (remember to bow when being incensed.) In all these places we know God is present amongst us.
2) The incense reminds us of the intercession of the saints. Just as surely as the incense rises towards the ‘heavens’ so too do our prayers of intercession through the saints rise to the throne of the Lamb (Jesus).
On a pastoral note I know that the incense for some of you can be a source of frustration and maybe even bothersome. I have three pastoral considerations for you:
1) Often in the past the incense that has been used is not real incense but chemicals mixed with incense and so the chemicals often caused a reaction. Here at Santa Sophia we use pure, natural resin incense so that what we are burning does not introduce harsh chemicals into the air you are breathing.
2) We are also a little conditioned to think that once we see smoke we should be coughing. And so when its a day that we are using incense and you see the smoke try not to let yourself automatically think it means you’re going to cough or expect to have a bad reaction.
3) When we use incense the pleasant smell can be tempting to take a big whiff. If you do it can make you cough as well because there’s too much smoke and not enough oxygen flowing into your lungs. So be careful to regulate your breathing when you see incense and it will help you not to get into a coughing fit.
Given the above guidance, some truly have respiratory issues with incense and so I remind you that our Sunday 8:00 am Masses do not include the use of incense – even on Solemnities.
For further reading I recommend “The Lamb’s Supper” by Scott Hahn.