Why do we use incense at Mass?

Charlette SmithQandA


The use of incense in religious ceremonies and worship is a practice that predates Christianity, and which is also found in many other religious traditions today.

Incense, which is made from resin infused with aromatic spices and oils, is one of those fundamentally human symbols that incorporates more than one of our senses, helping us to reflect on realities that transcend the everyday details of our lives.

The use of incense in the Church’s liturgy — in the Mass, as well as in devotions to the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours — is inspired by the use of incense in the Jewish tradition. In the writings of the Old Testament, we hear about incense being used in the worship of the temple, and Psalm 141 asks, “Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening offering” (vs. 2). The image here is that, as the incense gently rises to heaven, our prayers also rise to God as something sweet and pleasant.

Another ancient use of incense that has also become part of our Catholic tradition is the idea that when we incense something, it’s because it is something special or sacred. This is why the Book of the Gospel is incensed during the Liturgy of the Word and the bread, wine, priest celebrant, and congregation are incensed at the presentation of the gifts. To this, we can also add the incensing of the Blessed Sacrament during eucharistic adoration and benediction, and the body of the deceased at the end of the Mass of the Resurrection (the Funeral Mass).