Why do Catholics Use Incense?
Incense or nonsense? Every Church-going Catholic recognises the faint clinking of the censer as the altar briefly fills up with smoke. This is accompanied by everyone bowing down in reverence and a few mighty sneezes and coughs, while the children stare with wide eyes, wondering what’s going on. So, what is going on? If global warming is already such a big issue, why are Catholics adding to the pollution by burning incense at every single funeral and for the many special occasions like Easter and Christmas?
Incense is used by Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and by several other religions all around the world, so don’t get incensed just at Catholics for that. Secondly, the point is not to pollute the air, but to help us experience God.
The use of incense is mentioned in the Old Testament many times, and was being used in the Jewish Temple during the time of Jesus. We’ve basically borrowed the practice of using incense from them. We put incense in a censer, which is also called a thurible. The sweet smell of incense symbolises the fragrance and goodness of Heaven. As the smoke rises upwards, it symbolises our prayers rising to God. This is also mentioned in the book of Revelation. In chapter 8, an angel in Heaven offers incense which rises before God “with the prayers of the saints”. When we use incense at a funeral, it’s meant to show that we are surrendering our departed brother/sister back to God, along with our prayers for his/her soul.
Another use of incense is as a symbol of purification and blessing. We incense people and things that we want to make and keep holy by our prayers. That’s why, for the Christmas or Easter Vigil Mass, the priest incenses the Scriptures before reading the Gospel to show its importance. At another point, an altar server incenses the congregation to purify them so that we can present ourselves as a holy people before God.
Next time you see incense being used, pay attention to the movements of the priest or altar server. and remember these symbolic meanings of incense. As you do that, try to raise your own mind and heart to God, along with the smoke that rises up to Heaven.
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