Last weekend, we celebrated a great solemnity: The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is a principle called ‘Progressive Solemnity’ which essentially means that the more important a liturgical celebration, the more we should take care to make it especially solemn. And so, I took the opportunity to do something that, I’ll be honest, I wish we did more, but at the very least I make it a point to try to do on Solemnities; I used incense (except at the 4:30 Mass, I did not think about it in time to prepare.)
I know that incense is one of those things that some people love and some people hate. But whichever side you stand on, you should at least know the reason we use it in the Liturgy.
Like many practices in the Liturgy, the use of incense has both practical and theological beginnings. And also, like many other things in the liturgy, the reasons for its introduction do not exhaust the development of the understanding of its significance (and as a side note, I believe the Holy Spirit is responsible for helping us to introduce things that have deeper symbolism and purpose than is realized at their introduction.)
Incense is used throughout the Bible in ritual practices. It symbolizes, for example, prayer rising up to God (see, for example, Psalm 142.) In the early times of the Church, services were largely ‘underground’ as Christianity had not been culturally accepted. Once it was, and spaces specifically dedicated to the liturgy were built, incense was introduced more consistently. One of the reasons for its use was quite practical and somewhat silly to our modern sensibilities: it covered up the smell of hundreds of unwashed people crowded together in a tight space (and we think it tough when our air-conditioning goes down!)
But besides the basic practical reason, which obviously does not have a real purpose in our day and age, there are still real spiritual and practical purposes in the use of incense. I have already mentioned the symbolism of our prayers rising up to heaven, which reminds us of our purpose in the Liturgy. But a more significant and practical purpose is what incense does to fill our senses.
It is easy to see that the Liturgy is meant to ‘fill our senses,’ helping us to enter into this all-important act of worship with all our being. We hear music and bells, we make bodily gestures, we have all kinds of visual symbolism, and we taste the Eucharist. Incense fills the last remaining gap: our sense of smell. It is readily acknowledged in the scientific community that smell and memory association is extraordinarily strong. I’m sure that almost all of us know the feeling that comes so readily when we smell lilies, which are used often at funeral homes. I know every time I smell lilies, I am immediately transported back to my Grandmother’s visitation. Smells connect us to memories and experiences. And so, when we use incense consistently in the liturgy, the smell becomes associated with deep, liturgical solemnity and prayer. This association can make it so much easier for us to enter into that mental space. We smell incense and our brains tell us, “Something profound is happening,” and “It’s time to pray.”
Incense also provides some very important, and often subconscious, visual cues. Because we experience Mass every week, we can so easily become inoculated to the fact that what happens before us is the most profound and mysterious miracle that will happen in any of our lives.
And the great mystery of it should not be understated. What happens before us on that altar is beyond any of our intellects. No matter how learned, no matter how wise any of us are, it remains an incredible mystery, as deep and as wondrous as the very nature of God.
We need to stay in touch with the mystery, less we think we have exhausted its wonder. Incense does something very obvious to our vision: it clouds it. It ‘gets in our eyes,’ so to speak. Think of the times during the Mass that we use incense. We incense the altar at the beginning, the book of the Gospels which is the very Word of God, the altar again at the offertory, the priest who stands in the person of Christ and the congregation which is the body of Christ as the Church, and the body and blood of Christ at the consecration. These are all times when we are raising something up to God through prayer (think, for example, of the fact that when we use Eucharistic Prayer 1, the priest bows and says, “Command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty.”) But also, these are times when we are acknowledging that there is a great mystery before us. And incense can help us experience that mystical reality.
If we let it, incense can help fill the gaps in our senses and bring us more fully into a bodily embrace of the liturgy. I hope that, with this understanding of its purpose, we all will, at the very least, understand and accept that it has a significant purpose and try to embrace its functionality when it is used.