In a small Middle-Eastern country, in a small corner of a desert land, there grows a small tree.  Squat and thick, it’s really more of a dense shrub than a tree.  With thick, twisted branches that grow very slowly, it offers little shade from the heat and no edible fruit or nuts.  But the Boswellia tree of Oman has been treasured for thousands of years for its’ thick oily sap.  Harvesters slash the trunk of the tree with machetes and resin oozes out of the wounds.  In a day or two, the sap will harden into nuggets like rock candy.  These hard grains of dried resin are the raw materials of the incense used in Catholic churches around the world.

Both the Old and the New Testaments tell us that using incense is pleasing to God.  In Exodus, God commands Moses to build a small golden altar specifically for burning incense every morning and evening (Exodus 30:1-8). “Most holy shall this incense be unto you”(Exodus 30:36).  Incense is also mentioned in the Psalms and by the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Malachi.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, we read that the aging priest Zacharias was about to offer incense in the Temple in Jerusalem when the archangel Gabriel appeared to him to announce that he and his wife Elizabeth were about to have a son, the future John the Baptist (Luke 1:8-13).  One of the most memorable appearances of incense in Holy Scripture is as one of the gifts of the Magi to the child Jesus.  “And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary His mother, and falling down they adored Him; and opening their treasures they offered Him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh”(Matthew 2:11).  In the Revelation of St. John, he describes a scene in heaven where an angel burns incense:”…and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints…before God” (Revelation 8:3-4).

For the first several hundred years of Christian worship though, there is no evidence that incense was used.  Some believe that the fragrant clouds it made would have attracted the attention of the authorities of the Roman Empire at a time when Christians were killed for practicing their faith.  Others think it was more likely that the earliest Christians associated incense with another Roman practice of the time.  Roman judges would offer a captured Christian the chance to save his or her life by burning a few grains of incense before an image of a pagan god.  Christians who refused would be executed.  For whatever reason, it wasn’t until about the 4th century that Christians regularly used incense during the Holy Mass.

For Catholics, incense serves the same purpose as it did when Moses burned it in the desert — it pays homage to all that is holy and symbolizes our prayers ascending to God.  The incense we use, which has been mixed with spices to increase its’ fragrance, is placed over glowing charcoal embers in a covered gilded vessel called a censer or thurible.  The censer is suspended by chains which allows it to be swung forward to diffuse the sweet smoke.  Frequently, priests will incense the altar, the Gospels and the faithful themselves gathered to worship God.  As a symbol, incense reminds us of our prayers lifting up to God in heaven.  The sweet cloud of smoke recalls the appearances of God the Father as a cloud in Holy Scripture. The fragrant symbolism of incense engages our senses as it lifts our thoughts and minds to God.  It takes us out of our everyday-ness.  From a humble, wounded desert tree, incense comes to draw our hearts to that other tree in a desert land, which held our Lord and Savior, by Whose own wounds, we are healed.

“Perfume and incense make the heart glad.” —-Proverbs 27:9


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