July 2018 Print

The Incensing of the Altar

by Fr. Christopher Danel

“The ceremony of incensing, so solemn, so significant and so edifying, should move those present to devout and holy sentiments, and, as incense is consumed by the heat of the coals, should inspire them at the same time with the thought that their life, amid the fire and flames of love, like unto a precious holocaust, should be dedicated to the honor and service of God.”Monsignor Nicholas Gihr


In this article, we will examine the incensing of the altar, presenting the work of Monsignor Nicholas Gihr in his fundamental liturgical commentary The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically, and Ascetically Explained. Monsignor Gihr was a priest of the Archdiocese of Freiburg in Breisgau whose work of liturgical research took place during the time frame spanning the pontificates of Popes Pius IX to Pius XI, including that of Pope St. Pius X. The early years of his work were contemporaneous with the last years in the work of the eminent Benedictine liturgist Dom Prosper Guéranger of Solesmes. The English translation of his study appeared in 1902; the original is: Gihr, Nikolaus. Messopfer dogmatisch, liturgish und aszetish erklärt (Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1877).

In the Old Testament

By the express command of God in the Old Law, incense was already frequently used for liturgical purposes. Incense was “holy to the Lord;” the Lord Himself minutely directed how it was to be prepared and mixed, where and how often it was to be burned (Ex. 30:1 ff.). In the sanctuary, which was separated by a veil from the Holy of Holies, stood the altar for the offering of incense; on this altar every day, morning and night, a special incense-offering had to be made to the Lord. Also, at the great propitiatory sacrifice on the feast of reconciliation and at the offering of the show-bread, incense was accepted and burned as an additional gift.

In Christian Worship

The Fathers unanimously teach that the Wise Men from the East, by the offering of incense, intended symbolically to adore the Child Jesus, “the King of the Jews,” as the God concealed and revealed under the garb of earthly lowliness. Incense found a place in Christian worship already at an early date, and was more universally used especially from the time of the fourth century, when divine worship began to be more freely and more splendidly developed. The present liturgical practice in the use of incense was perfectly developed in the West only during the Middle Ages. In the Greek liturgies, there is far more frequent mention of incense than in the Latin Rite. During divine service, only pure incense is to be employed; the best comes from Africa, where it is obtained from the boswellia (incense-tree). To the incense, other odoriferous substances, for instance, rosin or herbs, may be added, but only in a considerably smaller quantity.

Liturgical Symbolism

The burning in the religious service of this precious, noble and fragrant incense is a splendid rite, which not only contributes much solemnity to the celebration of divine worship, but also symbolically represents the mysteries of faith and the virtues of the Christian life. The symbolism of incense consists essentially in this, that the grains of incense are dissolved by the heat of the coals, thereby diffusing a sweet odor which ascends heavenward in fragrant clouds, filling the sanctuary and the whole church.

The fragrant incense burning in the fire has, as it were, been created as a symbol, as a solemn expression of the interior sentiments of sacrifice and of prayer acceptable to God. The perfume of a plant is its most delicate and most noble part, and, so to speak, “its hidden, sleeping vitality,” for example, the fragrance of the balm tree, the rose and the violet. Hence, incense exhales and breathes forth its inmost soul when it is consumed in the fire and dissolved in fragrant clouds of smoke that rise heavenward. It thereby symbolizes, first, man’s spirit of sacrifice or his life of sacrifice, for he consumes himself with all his faculties in the fire of love for the honor and service of God. Then, the odor of incense, which arises from the burning grains and ascends in its fragrance, also symbolizes prayer. Prayer is the surrender of the soul to God, the elevation of the mind and spirit to Heaven, the aspiration of the heart toward goods, invisible and eternal.

If the grains of incense be cast on burning coals, a pleasant odor will arise; if the heart, like unto a glowing coal, is set on fire with the flames of divine love and ardent devotion, then our prayer will free itself from all that is earthly, and will ascend to the Lord as a sweet and precious perfume, that is to say, our prayer will be received with favor and pleasure and will be answered by Him. Hence the Psalmist exclaims: “Dirigatur, Domine, oratio mea sicut incensum in conspectu tuo!—Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight, O Lord!” (Ps. 140:2). Scripture represents the prayers of the saints under the figure of golden vials full of sweet odors, which the ancients bear in their hands, standing before the throne of the Lamb (habentes singuli phialas aureas plenas odoramentorum, quae sunt orationes Sanctorum. Apoc. 5:8). Adoration, praises, thanksgivings and petitions, like odoriferous incense, penetrate to the heavenly Holy of Holies as far as the throne of the Almighty.

The very nature of the thing itself indicates in the burning of the grains of incense chiefly a symbol of adoration, or rather of the sacrifice as the most perfect act and expression of adoration; but it is to be observed, that in the intention of the Church, incense is not exclusively employed to render the highest honor due to God alone, that is, to manifest interior adoration in a solemn manner, but also generally to denote religious veneration towards that which is holy. Therefore, besides the Most Blessed Sacrament, the relics and images of the saints, the book of the Gospels, the celebrant, the clergy and the people are incensed.

Incense as a Sacramental

Blessed incense is a sacramental: as such it not merely signifies something ennobled and mystical, but it has also (in its own way) supernatural effects. As a sacramental, incense is, then, a means to secure the divine protection and blessing. By virtue of the sign of the Cross and the blessing of the Church, incense is especially made efficacious for expelling or keeping at a distance Satan from the soul, and for affording us a powerful protection against the deceit and malice, the snares and the attacks of evil spirits, a protection we greatly need at the altar and during the celebration of the holy mysteries. Before the incense is burned on the altar that is about to be consecrated, the bishop prays Almighty God, that He “would deign to look down upon this incense, that He would bless and sanctify it, to the end that all sicknesses and infirmities, as well as every snare of the evil one may flee from its sweet odor, and that the creature (man) redeemed by the precious blood of Christ may never be wounded by the bite of the infernal serpent” (Pontificale Romanum, Benedictio incensi in altaris consecratione comburendi). Blessed incense produces yet another effect: it is used for the blessing of persons and of things. For with the clouds of incense is diffused the power of the blessing which the Church pronounces and desires to impart; they draw all who are incensed into a sanctified atmosphere.

The Incensations of the Mass

From what has just been explained concerning the symbolism and efficacy of incense, the purport and meaning of the different incensings in particular is easily inferred. The ascending clouds of the fragrant incense clothe the celebration of divine worship with additional majesty, pomp and solemnity; therefore, has the Church honored and distinguished many of her liturgical functions by the use of incense, among the number, the highest and most important of all, the solemn celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in quite a prominent and profoundly significant manner. The light clouds of incense soaring heavenward envelop the altar and fill the sanctuary throughout with their agreeable fragrance, most befittingly express and recommend the majesty of so great a Sacrifice, and make the earthly appear more evidently a copy of the heavenly altar (Apoc. 8:3).

The incensation takes place at the beginning of the general divine service, that is, between the prayers at the foot of the altar and the Introit, as well as at the beginning of the special sacrificial service, namely, during the Offertory; also at the culminating point of each of these principal parts of the Mass, namely, at the Gospel wherein the Lord is teacher, and at the Consecration when He appears in sacrifice on the altar. The cloud of incense is also symbolical of the appearance, that is, of the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and in His word; for already in the Old Covenant the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud of the Tabernacle (Ex. 40:32; Lev. 16:2; Par. 5:13), and on the great Day of Atonement the high priest enveloped the Holy of Holies of the Old Testament with clouds of incense in token of God’s revelation on that most sacred spot.

The Blessing of Incense

The first incensing at High Mass may be regarded as a solemn conclusion of the preparatory prayers at the foot of the altar; the rite is simple and is performed without any accompanying prayer. The celebrant places incense three times on the glowing coals, while saying: “Ab illo benedicaris in cujus honore cremaberis. Amen.—Be thou blessed by Him in whose honor thou wilt be consumed. Amen.” Only after these words does he make the sign of the Cross over the burning grains of incense. This formula of blessing declares the principal object of the incensing the glorification of the divine name. Incense is used at divine worship because of its exquisite odor, not to afford man a sensuous gratification, but to evince profound reverence toward the divine mysteries. In the first place, the Crucifix on the altar, or the Blessed Sacrament, is honored by incense, that is, due adoration is offered to the Lord in His image or in His Sacrament. If the Blessed Sacrament be not exposed, then the relics or images of the saints on the altar are incensed. This incensing is an eminent sign of veneration paid to the blessed in Heaven, who diffuse an agreeable odor like unto cinnamon and sweet-smelling balm and like precious myrrh (Ecclus. 24:20); then as a mark of honor it ought to move them to obtain, by their powerful intercession, mercy for us at the throne of God and a favorable answer to our petitions.

The priest, having just ascended the altar, and relying upon the intercession of the saints, has just prayed to God for perfect purity of heart: the fragrant clouds of incense which envelop the altar are now emblematical of the aforesaid prayers and merits of the saints, and, consequently, express in a symbolical manner the same petition that had immediately before been presented in words, that is, the petition for the assistance of the saints. The altar solemnly consecrated by the bishop and enriched with relics, is the most sacred place of sacrifice (Sancta sanctorum) and is to be regarded and revered with religious awe. The incensing of the altar symbolizes and calls to mind the sublime holiness of the consecrated altar. The blessed clouds of incense, therefore, not merely admonish us, but also obtain for us from above the necessary assistance to enter with a pure intention into the Holy of Holies, to stand at the altar and to celebrate the Most Holy Sacrifice with a devout heart. The fragrant clouds of smoking incense signify, at the same time, that this Sacrifice, by the power of the Holy Ghost, will ascend to Heaven as a “sweet odor” and be for us the source of all spiritual odors of grace. Finally, the celebrant himself, and he alone as the visible representative of the invisible High Priest, Jesus Christ, receives by the threefold incensing, the veneration due to his sacred character.


The fragrant clouds of incense are for the priest and people an admonition so to live as to become, by sacrifice and the spirit of prayer, a spiritual “good odor of Christ” (Christi bonus odor) in order to give joy to Heaven and earth. “Now thanks be to God, who always maketh us to triumph in Christ Jesus, and manifesteth the odor of His knowledge by us in every place. For we are the good odor of Christ unto God” (II Cor. 2:14-15). This admonition falls especially upon the priests of God, who are instructed by the bishop during the rite of their ordination, “Let your preaching be a spiritual medicine for the people of God and the odor of your lives a delight for the Church of Christ (sit odor vitae vestrae delectamentum Ecclesiae Christi).”