Posted by: frroberts | March 3, 2015

Bulletin note: Why use incense?

“Let my prayer arise unto thee like incense, the raising of my hands like an evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2).

Why have we started using incense at Masses in our parish cluster?  We have at least three reasons.  First, the practice comes straight out of the Bible. Second, burning incense teaches us important lessons about the spiritual life. Finally, young men love it.

In both the first and second Jewish temples, the Levitical priests burned incense while singing the psalms every morning and evening (Ex. 30:7-8,  2 Chr 13:11).  In the New Testament, Zechariah learned from the Archangel Gabriel that his wife Elizabeth would conceive Saint John the Baptist when offering incense to the Lord in the Temple.  When the wise men brought gifts to Jesus, one of the gifts that they gave Him was incense.  In the Book of Revelation, Saint John describes in vivid symbolic detail how those in heaven worship God by bowing down and burning incense before Him (Rev 4:1-5:14, 8:3).  We should hardly be surprised that for most of the Church’s history burning it during celebrations of the Eucharist has been common.

Burning incense symbolizes the ascent of our prayers to the Lord God.  Deeper reflection indicates that this symbolism has a greater richness than what seems at first glance.  Really praying, that is asking for the grace of alignment of our will with God’s will is much more difficult than we think.  Very often, we cannot understand the Lord’s purposes.  In fact, we sometimes have a violent negative reaction to how our prayers are answered.  While incense can have sweet smell and a certain elegance, it also makes a mess.  The smoke, especially if it is thick, can make it harder to see and breathe.  If done carelessly, using incense can damage vestments, dirty fingers and even burn skin. Incense reminds us that there is nothing neat and easy about authentic prayer.

Finally, young men, especially young men who serve at the altar, love it.  There is more to this point than the inclination of young men toward pyromania.  Young men usually pay higher car insurance premiums because they tend to take more risks than the general population.  Regularly going to church, with its ties to tradition and keeping rules, appears to many young men a very safe or even somewhat boring lifestyle. But anyone who has read the Bible should know that true religion should not be boring!  Burning incense during Mass teaches us that practicing the faith involves some danger and even taking risks, which plays very well to men between 14 and 28.

If we want vocations to the priesthood from our parish cluster, it would be very wise to do things that appeal to this group.


  1. Fr. Roberts – I enjoyed this post. I learned something about why we burn incense and its purpose and I also agree with you about young men and insense. Having a son in this age range, I can tell you that “living a little dangerously” is very appealing to them. :)


  2. Often at St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Church in Indianapolis, burning charcoal with incense flies out of the Kadilo (thurible) when the priest or deacon swings it, and burns the carpet! Incense is used at every liturgy.


  3. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a burning ember fly out of the censer!


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