Religious ceremonies are rife with various traditions. Candles and oil are just two of the many symbols commonly found during weekly services and holy days of obligation. During special ceremonies and sacraments, church officials also may use incense.
At some liturgical services, priests, deacons or alter servers may swing censers that send plumes of perfumed smoke into the house of worship. Individuals may not know why incense is used in certain religious ceremonies. Many religions once burned incense as an offering to a deity or to use as an aid in prayer. According to the book, “Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries,” by A. Lucas, the first recorded use of incense was by the Egyptians during the fifth dynasty. The use of incense also was commonplace in Eastern religions.
In Western churches, particularly Roman Catholic churches, incense is housed in a thurible, which is a metal censer suspended from chains. The Christian practice of using incense is rooted in the earlier traditions of Judaism.
The word “incense” is derived from the Latin incendere, which means “to burn.” In the Old Testament, God commanded His people to burn incense in various passages. He commanded Moses to make an altar of incense for worship in Exodus 30:1-10:
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.
God even specifies the recipe for incense, blended with spices and frankincense.
Incense has not only represented gifts to God, but also has been used to sanctify and purify an area. The smoke symbolically purifies all that it touches. Hands and liturgical vessels, such as chalices, may be inverted over the burning incense to be cleansed in the fragrant smoke. Often a priest will swing the thurible over the altar, the Book of the Gospels, the paschal candle, the altar cross, and even himself and his parishioners. The censer may be swung between one and three times depending on the object or person being honored, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), a detailed document that governs celebration of the Mass.
Incense is an integral part of many religious services. It may be used in weekly masses or reserved for ceremonies celebrating sacraments or High Holy Days.