by Paul Turner

The smells of barbecue, fresh-baked bread, and evergreen arouse our noses. They also fill us with warmth and welcome. Smells enhance our worship as well. The wax of candles, the bouquet of wine, and the perfume of chrism bring delightto Catholic faithful. But our most famous smell comes from incense. It signalsthe solemnity of our common prayer.

The occasions for incense range from the ordinary to the exalted. If wewanted, we could use incense every day of the year, but we generally reserve itfor big occasions.

Several parts of the Mass call for incense. When the entrance processionforms, incense may lead the way. When the presider reaches the sanctuary, hemay incense the altar in reverence. In the Gospel procession, the deacon orpriest may follow incense to the ambo, where he incenses the book beforereading. After the gifts come to the altar, the celebrant may incense thebread, the wine, and the altar itself. Then a deacon or another minister mayincense the priest and the people. When this happens, we stand up and bow whenthe minister bows before and after the incensation. It's a stylized way ofsaying hello and receiving the incense with the dignified humility of guestsaccepting a refill. During the eucharistic prayer, when the priest shows us theLord's body and blood, a minister kneeling near the altar may incense thissacred banquet.

Other occasions invite incense too. At a funeral, we incense the remains ofthe faithful departed. At exposition of the Blessed Sacrament we incense themonstrance. During solemn processions, incense takes the lead.

In the scriptures, incense symbolizes prayer. Psalm 141:2 says, "Letmy prayer be counted as incense before you." Revelation 8:3-4 says, "Anotherangel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a greatquantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the goldenaltar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayersof the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel." Incensedelights the eye as well as the nose. As smoke rises mysteriously to theheavens, it bears our prayers aloft.

(This bulletin insert originally appeared in MODERN LITURGY, copyright (c) 1996, Resource Publications, Inc. It may not be reproduced without permission. Send permission requests to

(Paul Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, MO, holds a doctorate in sacramental theology from Sant' Anselmo University.)