Oblate Program at Belmont Abbey, NC

Incense as a Sacramental

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incense-epiphany-webLet my prayer be counted as incense before you,
    and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. Ps. 141:2 (NRSV)

Roman Catholics are familiar with the use of incense in Church, particularly for the major feast days like Easter and Christmas. Protestant churches almost never use it. It is within the Eastern Churches (Orthodox and Eastern Rite) that we see the wide spread use of incense. It is present for almost every service and it is used widely in the home as well.

Often we will light a candle, especially a blessed candle, when we pray or are doing Lectio. It, too, is a burnt offering to the Lord. It's light drives away the darkness. They emit a "holy smoke" that pervades a room (and chases away the "prince of the power of the air"). But the same can be said about incense. For some it helps bring solemnity to the routine (not that prayer should be routine). It also acts as a burnt offering to the Lord and the smoke raises our prayer to God and drives away demons. The rising smoke so shows our veneration of that which is incensed, the holy images and the Scriptures present in the prayer corner. The burning of incense is symbolic of three things:

  1. burning represents zeal and fervor
  2. fragrance represents virtue; and
  3. the rising smoke represents acceptable prayer

incense-home-webIn his monograph Sacred Signs, Monsignor Romano Guardini (1885-1968), who greatly influenced the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, had these beautiful words to say about the use of incense:

"The offering of an incense is a generous and beautiful rite. The bright grains of incense are laid upon the red-hot charcoal, the censer is swung, and the fragrant smoke rises in clouds. In the rhythm and the sweetness there is a musical quality; and like music also is the entire lack of practical utility: it is a prodigal waste of precious material. It is a pouring out of unwithholding love."

The Catholic faith is a liturgical faith. It makes use of all five of our senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. This is certainly by design as each sense aids us in availing ourselves of the salvific grace flowing from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This is precisely why every effort should be used to employ all of our senses whenever possible during the celebration of the sacred liturgy. In more concise terms, the “smells and bells” most certainly do matter.

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