Why We Burn Incense
What is Incense? Incense is made from various aromatic resins and gums taken from trees and ther plants. When burned it gives off scented smoke. In church it is normally burned in a censer or thurible. Because it is difficult to burn on its own, and to create the maximum amount of smoke, it is burned along with charcoal.
The use of incense in the ancient world was common, especially in religious rites where it was used to keep demons away. In Judaism, incense was included in the thanksgiving offerings of oil, rain, fruits, wine (cf. Numbers 7:13-17). The Lord instructed Moses to build a golden altar for the burning of incense (cf. Exodus 30:1-10), which was placed in front of the veil to the entrance of the meeting tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.
Christian worship erupts out of our love of God and our desire to express that love. As such we should worship Him 'with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength.' Good liturgy is designed to stimulate just such a response in us, by exciting the senses and feeding our imagination.
One of the elements of good liturgy is, for example, the use of colourful vestments, processions and the like. Singing and chanting is another important element of liturgy, stimulating as it does the sense of hearing. The use of incense enables even fuller participation in the liturgy by stimulating the sense of smell. It also provides colour, movement and sound as the thurible is swung and its chain 'clinks' and 'tinkles.'
Incense as Symbol
Symbols help to point our minds in the direction of invisible realities, and speak to us in a language often richer than words alone. As a symbol, incense is exceptionally rich in associations.
At the heart of worship in the Temple at Jerusalem was sacrifice. The sacrificial offering was usually a living thing such as a lamb or bird, but the fruits of the earth were also offered, including incense. In the Temple there was even an altar specially set aside for the burning of incense.
In our daily lives, Christians have the opportunity to give the best of themselves back to God in service of each other. In our worship we have the opportunity to offer tokens which represent ourselves. Incense is a token of the best we have to offer. In 2 Cor.2:15 we read, "We are indeed the incense offered by Christ to God both for those who are on the way to salvation, and for those who are on the way to perdition. To the later it is a deadly fume that kills; to the former a vital fragrance that brings life."
In the Mass we join our offering with that of Christ Himself on the cross, as at the hands of the priest. He offers Himself to the Father on our behalf. The burning of the incense in the Mass reminds us that Christ's sacrifice is real, and just as effective for us who are alive today as it was when He died on the Cross
When we burn incense?
The most natural and appropriate time to burn incense is when the Lord comes among us in Person in the Eucharist. It is used particularly used during the entrance procession; at the beginning of Mass, to incense the altar; at the procession and proclamation of the Gospel; at the offertory, to incense the offerings, altar, priest and people; and at the elevation of the Sacred Host and chalice of Precious Blood after the consecration. It is also used at other times, such as at funerals, and when objects and places are blessed.
The priest may also incense the Crucifix and the Paschal Candle. During funeral Masses, the priest at the final commendation may incense the coffin, both as a sign of honour to the body of the deceased which became the temple of the Holy Spirit at Baptism and as a sign of the faithful’s prayers for the deceased rising to God.