A Symbol of Prayer

Let my prayer come like incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” (Ps 141:2, RSV).

When I was growing up in Hawaii, I loved being an altar boy. The privilege of serving at Mass was something I will always remember. “Big” Masses were also the most fun, especially the ones that involved incense. Every once in a while I would be picked to act as thurifer — the server who carries the thurible, the censer hanging from a set of chains that contains the incense. Unlike other altar servers who were not fond of the aroma, I enjoyed the intensity of the mixture of sweetness and spice that only the burning resin and rare essences such as frankincense could produce. And then there was the indelible image of the celebrant incensing the gifts, the cross, the altar and the people, and I would watch especially as the smoke billowed up into the air and faded away toward the ceiling of the cathedral. As the above quote from Psalms tells us, the rise of the smoke of the incense has a profound purpose — to lift our prayers and supplications to God, as Father Dwight Longenecker describes wonderfully in his article in this issue, “Holy Smoke! Why Do We Use Incense in Worship?” (Pages 14-16).

In his 1956 book “Sacred Signs,” Father Romano Guardini wrote: “It is a pouring out of unwithholding love.… It burns and is consumed like love that lasts through death. Incense is the symbol of prayer. Like pure prayer it has in view no object of its own; it asks nothing for itself. It rises like the Gloria at the end of a psalm in adoration and thanksgiving to God for His great glory.”

This brings us to another vital aspect of incense that Father Longenecker describes. Incense is a sign for us that during Mass heaven and earth meet. The Book of Revelation proclaims: “Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel” (8:3-4).

As a young man, I probably could not explain fully the liturgical and theological importance of incense. But looking back, I remember how grateful I was for the experience. And how the senses pointed me to a much deeper reality. Incense was — and still is — the perfect embodiment of the old adage of the “smells and bells” of Catholicism.

Matthew Bunson, D.Min., K.H.S., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at mbunson@osv.com.