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Why is incense used at Mass?

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Q. I am a Catholic, but I have forgotten why incense is sometimes used at Mass. Please explain, especially with regard to its use at funerals. (Aumsville, Ore.)


A. The smoke of burning incense is seen by the church as an image of the prayers of the faithful rising to heaven. That symbolism is seen in Psalm 141:2: "Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening offering."


Incense is also mentioned in the New Testament Book of Revelation (8:4) as an image of the worship offered to the Almighty in heaven: "The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel."


The use of incense was common in Jewish worship and carried over into Christian practice. In Exodus, Chapter 30, the Lord instructs Moses to build an altar of incense. Christian ritual books as early as the seventh century mark the use of incense in church services on Good Friday.


The current General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the church's "guidebook" for liturgical celebrations) permits the use of incense at several different times during the Mass, including at the Gospel and at the elevation of the consecrated bread and wine.


At a funeral Mass, as well as symbolizing the prayers of the congregation directed toward heaven, incensing the casket honors the body of the deceased, which through baptism became a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.


(One pastoral caution: Occasionally people can be allergic to incense; at a couple of funerals, I have been tipped off in advance about such a concern and have foregone the use of incense at that particular Mass.)


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017