“I was at a funeral in the Catholic Church and I saw the Rev. Father and some boys using incense. Please can you explain the reason why your Church does that Sir?”
*The use of incense within the Catholic liturgical celebration is biblical and can be traced back to the instruction given to Moses by Yahweh to mark and keep space. (Cf: Exodus 30: 1-10). This was a major part of the Israelites’ religious practice in the Temple. Also, the book of Revelation talks about angels using incense to offer prayers to God (Rev. 8:3–5). This is also used to drive away evils and demons.
* “Incense was a highly valuable commodity in ancient times. A gift of incense was something to be prized. The visual imagery of the smoke and the smell reinforce the transcendence of the Mass linking Heaven with Earth, allowing us to enter into the presence of God. The smoke symbolizes the burning zeal of faith that should consume all Christians, while the fragrance symbolizes Christian virtue.”
The word incense is derived from the Latin word ”incendere”, which means “to burn”. “It is commonly used as a noun to describe aromatic matter that releases fragrant smoke when ignited, to describe the smoke itself and as a verb to describe the process of distributing the smoke”.
* Although, there are different schools of thought in responding to why Christians (Catholics) make use of incense as part of our religious practice. “A popular view in the late 1800s argued that it was simply meant to cover smells and prevent disease. More modern views suggest that it is because incense remembers a time when burnt sacrifices were a part of religious expression, that it symbolizes the incorruptibility of God (the resin that is burned will never go bad), or that through the transformation of resin to smoke, it illustrates the transformation from the body to the soul”.
The Catholic Liturgy
In the Catholic liturgy, the purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of purification and sanctification. And this has become a prominent part of our liturgical celebration. “It reminds the congregation that the entire world is sacred. Both seen and smelled, incense connects our senses to our lives as people of faith. Every time we go to Mass, we are reminded that the distinction between what is holy and what is not is blurry.”
* Within the New Testament, at the visitation of the child Jesus in the manger, frankincense was part of the gifts presented to the baby Jesus by the magi. Frankincense in this context symbolises Jesus’ priestly role/ office. Thus Frankincense is one of the two main ingredients in the Roman Catholic incense. It comes from balsam trees and is common in medicines and perfumes.
*According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), incense may be 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. 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 Faithfull’s prayers for the deceased rising to God.
* More so, some religious scholars have highlighted twofold significance for the use of incense during a funeral Mass. Reverence and prayer – The Roman Missal instructs that incensation or thurification is an important practice that expresses reverence. The incense signified the prayers of the community of believers rising to the throne of God as a farewell sign for the departed. Thus “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice”. Psalm (141:2).
*Respect for the Deceased – In the Order of Christian Funerals, incense signified honour to the deceased body. During baptism, the body became the temple where the Holy Spirit dwells, therefore, it must be honoured even in death.
* Finally, Incense is a sacramental used to venerate, bless, and sanctify. The use of incense during our liturgical assembly adds a sense of solemnity and mystery to the Mass. That is why every Catholic funeral mass must have a moment where incense is used. The burning of incense is a tradition that is etched into the fabric of the Catholic Church. More so, the visual imagery of the smoke and the smell remind us of the transcendence of the Mass which links heaven with earth and allows us (the Faithful) to enter into the presence of God.