After Midnight Mass, my daughter asked me what the smoke was all about. Though I know incense is a very Catholic thing, I was unable to answer her question. Can you help me?
First off, it’s not just a Catholic thing, it is also an Orthodox thing, and even more so. But, thank you for asking as this seems to be a burning question for many.
Not too long ago I gave a talk on the sensory aspects of the liturgy. Naturally, I sang the praises of the olfactory sense and lauded the use of incense. No sooner was I done than a person sitting in the front row jumped up. Speaking louder than was necessary, she yelled out: “When will the Catholic Church stop smoking?” Then she grabbed her bag and stomped out. I was speechless.
It seems like people either really love incense or absolutely hate it. Very few people are opinion-less when it comes to incense. Admittedly, some individuals are incense-intolerant due to allergies or respiratory conditions. We need to be very considerate of this.
The use of incense is an important element in Catholic liturgy because of historical, theological, and liturgical reasons.
• Historically, we can trace our use of incense back to Jewish religious rites as well as Roman imperial ceremonies.
• Theologically, the use of incense is connected with Psalm 141, which compares our prayers rising up to God with the rising incense used during our prayers: “My prayers rise like incense.”
• Liturgically, incense is used as an honorific gesture. In addition, incense is used because of its olfactory qualities.
In recent times we have become more aware of the importance of the senses. Remember, for example, how the slightest whiff of a certain perfume can whisk you off to a totally different place and time, as it reminds you of a certain person or event. Similarly, incense is used as a reminder of the sacred so that every time we smell it we are reminded that we are at prayer. Taking it a step further, some churches use a different kind of incense for each season of the liturgical year, so as to create an olfactory connection between a liturgical season and a liturgical scent. As soon as people smell a certain aroma, they are transported into a certain liturgical season. Thus, liturgical colors, liturgical music, liturgical texts, and liturgical scent mark the liturgical seasons.
Many churches have abandoned the use of incense out of consideration for people who are physically intolerant of it. This is especially the case in smaller churches where there is little or no airflow. Though this is, of course, very important in terms of creating a hospitable liturgical environment, it also results in the loss of an ancient visual and olfactory symbol. Some parishes have worked to improve their airflow systems so they can continue to use incense without irritating some parishioners. Other parishes have declared certain liturgies incense free while retaining the custom in others. Whatever we do, we need to be sensitive both to the comfort of our parishioners as well as to the important legacy of our symbols.
May I ask you, did your daughter love it or hate it? It may give us an insight into the liturgical future of the use of incense.
© 2015 Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Excerpted from What’s the Smoke For? And Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy by Johan van Parys © 2014 Order of Saint Benedict, published by Liturgical Press, www.litpress.org. Used by permission.
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