Incensed About Incense


I’m like a magpie–I like shiny things.  And I like fire.  (And funnily enough, I’m not overenthusiastic about diamonds… ba-dum-kssh.)  And I swear that these weaknesses of mine are not the only reasons I love being Catholic.  Honestly.  They’re just part of it.

Starting a post like that, you’d imagine I’m going to start talking about something related to candles–maybe the Benedictine setup of the altar, with six shiny candlesticks with lit candles and a beautiful crucifix in the center.  Nope!  As the title says, I like incense.  A lot.  I didn’t, so much, when I was little… or in the days when I used to be an altar server (this is NOT a discussion about girls on the altar) and held the position of thurifer and had to breathe in the smoke at close quarters.  But as I’ve grown in my faith, I’ve grown in my appreciation for the beauty of incense.

Many people claim that incense is symbolic in that the smoke, like our prayers, rises up to heaven and reaches God.  This is backed up by Revelation (where the Mass is described as “heavenly worship”): the prayers of the saints ride upon the smoke of incense.  I’ve also heard that the scent of incense pleases our Lord, as referenced in Leviticus when frankincense was part of a cereal offering–an offering of grain.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has a very long and rich history of incense.  Because Catholicism is, basically, the completion of Judaism–the New Covenant, as compared to the Old–it is vital to understand just how much tradition comes to Catholicism from the Old Law.  Incense is part of an Old Covenant sin offering, which is not only a burnt offering of an animal but also of incense.  Frequently in Leviticus is it mentioned that something is burned “because its scent pleases the Lord.”

Traditionally, incense is primarily frankincense, a resin extracted from a particular tree, much like sap.  Some forms of incense are pure resin, others can be ground into a powder.  Still others are simply pieces of wood soaked with the resin.  Frankincense has always been a symbol of a sacrifice–hence its importance when the Magi presented it to the Christ child upon their visitation.  The etymology of the word “frankincense” adds to its symbolism: it is from Old French–franc encens, or “pure incense.”  Additional scents and ingredients may be mixed into incense–traditionally between four and thirteen extra ingredients.  These seemingly random numbers originate in the Old Law of the Jews.  Sometimes myrrh will be added to the mix: this is doubly symbolic, as myrrh was used for embalming during Egyptian times (representative of Christ’s death) and also because it calls back to both the Old and New Testaments.  Myrrh was part of the consecrated incense in the Old Law.  In the New Testament, it is another gift from the Magi to the Christ child.  If additional scents are added, they are commonly floral.

The Eastern Rite tends to use more incense than the Western Rite.  Why this is, I don’t know–I do know, however, that our prayers are carried upon the smoke of incense.  And why on earth we would not take advantage of that beautiful method of prayer is beyond me.  So, I say to all my fellow Western Rite Catholics–burn, baby, burn… incense, at least.


– Incense carries our prayers to God and the scent pleases Him

– Incense mix recipe is a carry-over from the Old Law

– Used in the heavenly liturgy described in Revelation

– Usually primarily frankincense and myrrh but can have additional ingredients and scents


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