Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Extraordinary Form: Why Incense?

What I am covering today is something that sadly many will not get to see when they attend the Extraordinary Form. This is the inclusion of incense into the Mass, and the various prayers assorted with it. As a result, I will be somewhat jumping around throughout the liturgy for this piece.

Many mock incense as part of the empty “smells and bells” of the Catholic faith: a religion so focused on externals, they have forgotten the deeply internal relationship the soul is called to have with God. With this line of thought, those making this claim have introduced a separation which is central in our faulty understanding of the liturgy.

In short, it separates the liturgy from the Incarnation. When incense is first used in the Mass, the priest prays Be blessed by Him in whose honour thou art burnt. The Mass is not just a worship involving the mind, or even just of the person. All of creation is offered in the service of God, since He created everything. This was the purpose of the Incarnation. Through Christ becoming man, He would draw all that was created back to the Father. Man was given dominion over the created order, and inevitably used that created order for the worship of himself instead of God. This prayer at the Mass is a reversal of this trend. To worship with the mind alone is not sufficient. We worship with our mind, soul, and body, and all that they create.

At this point, the incense, blessed by God, consecrates that which is holy to God. The original meaning of “holy” is that which is set apart, dedicated to one sole purpose. During Mass, we see the altar, the Gospel, and even ourselves incensed. It is a reminder of our original calling in this world (to know, love, and worship God) and that we are called to that original calling above all else.

The offering of incense also carries numerous other symbolic overtones. When the incense is burned, the smoke rises towards the heavens. In the Old Testament, the Psalmist prays that his prayer may be directed as “incense in Thy sight.” The Apocalypse of St. John tells us that in heaven, the incense rising to God is the prayer of the Saints. We are meant to follow that incense in elevating our minds above the things which are passing, and towards that which is eternal.

The mass also treats incense as part of an exchange. When incense is used during the Offertory, the priest says:

May this incense, which Thou has blessed, O Lord, ascend to Thee, and may Thy mercy descend upon us.
The offering of incense is ultimately a sign of confidence. When we offer everything we have to God, holding nothing back, He will not withhold His mercy. He will grant all that we need and desire when we fulfill the purpose for which we were originally created.

Finally, the flame that burns the incense is compared to God’s love:

May the Lord enkindle within us the fire of His love, and the flame of everlasting charity. Amen.
Here we are reminded of the cleansing power of God. The writer of the Hebrews refers to God as a “consuming fire.” The flame which burns the incense directs what is left of it (the smell) towards heaven. The consuming fire of God’s love burns away the impurities of our souls, and raises us to Heaven, our true home.

As one can see, far from creating a barrier to the internal relationship with God, the use of such things as incense is a powerful reminder of that calling. In the Mass, the Church uses all of creation and what it represents not only in God’s service, but in a powerful sign that directs us to God. It should then be no surprise that our current Pope once complained that the majority of Catholics “worship themselves” instead of Christ at Mass. In many of these Churches, they have done away with the “smells and bells.”

Like the smoke which rises, may we always be focused on our eternal calling and home.

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