Use of Incense

Q. Could you explain the significance of using incense at certain Masses and church ceremonies, such as funerals?

A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:

Our ancestors used incense from the earliest days of our faith. The Book of Exodus records God giving Moses exact instructions for the Israelites’ worship. Among these are details for an altar on which to burn incense, as well as a recipe for the incense itself (see 30:1). “Take sweet spices … with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part) … it shall be for you most holy” (Ex 30:34-36, RSV). And it may only be used in worship: “Whoever makes any … use as perfume shall be cut off from his people” (30:38).

Because the ingredients are so valuable, and the smell so pleasant, incense becomes a symbol for the praise and petitions of God’s people, rising to the Lord. Thus the Psalmist begs, “Let my prayer be before you” (Ps 141:2).

This is the significance of incense the Church has inherited. When the General Instruction of the Roman Missal refers to the use of incense in the liturgy, it observes, “The priest may incense the gifts placed upon the altar and then incense the cross and the altar itself, so as to signify the Church’s offering and prayer rising like incense in the sight of God” (No. 75).