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Although the use and history of incense began thousands of years before the beginning of Christianity, the use of incense is quite prevalent within the catholic religion and remains an integral part of their practice today. Before the inception of Christianity, it was a part of Jewish liturgy. Incense is mentioned in the Talmud, as well as about 170 times within both the old and new testaments.

As the above article mentions, trade routes were commonly traversed through the Middle East and many of these routes ended in Israel. From Israel, it was then introduced to the Roman Catholics, although it is not clear exactly when incense became a part of Catholic religious services, as the earliest evidence available is from four centuries after the creation of the church. However, there are many references to it in the New Testament, such as:

Then, when the whole assembly of people were praying outside at the hour of the incense offering, the angel of the Lord appeared to him standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw and fear came upon him. – John the Baptist

Use of Incense Within the Catholic Religion

Incense has a long history of being used for religious purposes and many view it as an important part of their practice.

These sweet scents are intended to remind one of heaven and the divinity of their worship.

The GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal) allows for the use of incense at several times during the Mass.

There are several typical occasions in which incense is used at Mass:

  • Incense may be burned during the entrance procession.
  • The beginning of Mass, to incense the cross and altar.
  • Directly before reading the Gospel/Bible.
  • After the bread and the chalice are placed on the altar to incense the offerings, the cross, the altar, the priest, and finally the people.
  • Holy days, such as Holy Thursdays and the Easter Vigil.
  • Funerals and related rituals.

What Type of Incense is Burned at Mass?

The type of incense burned at a Catholic mass may vary in composition but it typically consists of frankincense, myrrh, and/or benzoin. Many churches will simply burn frankincense, some burn frankincense and myrrh together to symbolize the gifts to baby Jesus, and some may burn all three at once. This is often referred to as a ‘Three Kings’ recipe. Some may use copal resin as well, but this is not as common. Incense sticks and other similar forms of incense, more associated with Asian and Indian cultures, are not typically burned at Catholic churches.

Three Kings Incense Recipe

It is recommended to buy smaller pieces of resins, or cut/grind to proper size yourself.

How Incense is Burned at Mass

Catholics most often burn incense in a Thurible, which is a type of censer, or incense burner. Such thuribles are typically ornate in design. Usually a type of server, who is called a thurifer, carries a censer filled with lit charcoal and approaches the ceremony conductor. The incense is then placed inside and the censer is closed. The priest (or deacon, server, or acolyte) then takes the censer, which is on a chain, and swings it towards whatever is being cleansed. Most often it is swung three times, to represent the Holy Trinity. Sometimes the thurifer will be assisted by a ‘Boat-bearer’ but this is not always the case.

“Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight: the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice.”
(Psalm 141)

Incense in the Bible

The use of incense is highly attributed to it’s many occurrences in the bible. As mentioned previously in this post, incense is mentioned about 170 times in the bible.

Notable Mentions In The Old Testament

When God commanded Moses to make an Altar of Incense for worship in the Tabernacle:

You shall make an altar to burn incense upon; of acacia wood shall you make it . . . And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it,  and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. – (Exodus 30:1-10)

God even dictated specific ingredients for incense to Moses in Exodus:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part),  and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy;  and you shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. And the incense which you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be for you holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.” – (Exodus 30:34-38; 37:29)

Notable Mentions In The New Testament

In addition to the popular story of the Three Wise Men bearing gifts of incense (frankincense & myrrh) and gold for the baby Jesus, incense is mentioned in other places as well, such as when the Apostle St. John was said to see visions of incense being used at God’s Throne:

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. – (Revelation 5:6-8)

The above passage is thought to liken the prayers of saints to bowls of aromatic incense within the Kingdom of God.

And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God. – (Revelation 8:3-4)

In the above passage it is said that angels mingled incense with the prayers of saints before they rose to heaven.