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During the Roman persecutions there was a standard test that became part of court procedure, and the Roman governor Pliny describes the routine. Accused Christians were brought into court, where a statue of the emperor or a pagan god would be set up with a fire burning on a small altar in front of it. The accused would have to drop a pinch of incense on the fire. Refusing to burn the incense, refusing to reverence such a “god,” would convict the person as a Christian. In the early Church the vivid picture of an “incense test” that would lead to conviction, torture, and death would inhibit the Church, for a time, from using incense in its own worship. 

Many point the finger at the Catholic Church accusingly, seeing the liturgical use of incense as pagan and anti-Christian. Such accusations show not just a lack of understanding of the meaning of incense, but a lack of scriptural knowledge. The New Testament shows us that the Church was familiar with the use of incense. 

Zechariah makes an offering of incense in the sanctuary (Luke 1:8-12). John describes an angel with a golden censer offering large amounts of incense before the throne of God: “From the angel’s hand the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God’s people” (Rev. 8:3-5). The Magi bring incense as an offering to Christ himself (Matt. 2:11). Whenever Christ or the apostles go up to the Temple to pray, their prayers ascend to God along with the smoke of the incense. 

The use of incense to accompany and symbolize prayer has been widespread through many religions over many millennia. The Old Testament testifies to its integral use in Jewish worship, mandated by God (Ex. 30:7-8). There are explicit instructions instituting the use of incense, commanding that it be offered every day, morning and evening: “Throughout your generations this shall be the established incense offering before the Lord” (Ex. 30:1-9). We find Aaron making an offering of incense (Lev. 16:12-13). 

When the ritual offering of incense had been made in the Temple, the priests came out to extend a blessing on the people (Num. 6:24-26). This same blessing echoes to this day in our churches: “The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!” 

The primary component of incense is a precious tree resin, which is combined with other ingredients to produce, when burned, a sweet, white, fragrant smoke. There is a powerful symbolic value in the burning of incense. Like a holocaust, it is a spiritualized offering to God. As it burns, it becomes de-materialized; the wreaths of white smoke rise and spread up and out to heaven symbolizing prayer rising up to God. 

Incense engages the senses of sight and smell. The smell is sweet, but not in a carnal way. The fragrance is intriguing, but it doesn’t stimulate the appetite to induce hunger or thoughts of food; rather, it helps pull you, literally by the nose, into the solemnity of the worship. 

When exactly incense became a regular sacramental in the Church’s liturgy is not clear. It pervades the liturgical rites after the persecutions stop and the peace of the Church is established. (The first Christians’ refusal to offer incense to a false god showed they recognized that the use of incense was symbolic of prayer–it was a solemn gesture which they could offer only to the true God.) Early accounts, like that of the fifth-century pilgrim Aetheria, testify that incense was in use in the Church in Jerusalem when she visited there. 

Not only does the Catholic Church use it in the Latin and Eastern Rites, but the Orthodox churches use it as well. Incense is characteristic of the worship of all pre-Protestant churches. 

Some will pejoratively refer to a Mass as a concoction of “smells and bells.” But a Catholic solemn Mass, when properly done, will appeal to all the human senses to pull the whole person, body, mind, and soul, into the worship of God. The eye is moved by the architecture, stained glass, vestments, paintings, sculpture, and decorations. The ear is caught by the music and the chant. Knees bend and fingers touch the forehead, chest, and shoulders as the rubrics are performed. The fragrant haze of the incense drifts through the building and is inhaled. 

All this serves to remind the believer that God is present. Each member of the congregation can say to God, as David said in Psalm 141: “Let my prayer come like incense before you.”

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