"I have cried to Thee, O Lord, hear me: hearken to my voice, when I cry
to Thee. Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight; the lifting
up of my hands, as evening sacrifice."
The "sweet savour" of incense was used in Old Testament liturgy as far
back as the time of Moses as an offering to God:
And the Lord said to Moses: Take unto thee spices, stacte, and onycha,
galbanum of sweet savour, and the clearest frankincense, all shall be
of equal weight. And thou shalt make incense compounded by the work of
the perfumer, well tempered together, and pure, and most worthy of
sanctification. And when thou hast beaten all into very small powder,
thou shalt set of it before the tabernacle of the testimony, in the
place where I will appear to thee. Most holy shall this incense be unto
you. You shall not make such a composition for your own uses, because
it is holy to the Lord.
... and its continued use was predicted, along with the
Eucharistic offering, by Malachias:
For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great
among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is
offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the
Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts.
Frankincense as a sign of His Divinity, and myrrh to portend
His Passion and Death, were two of the three gifts the Magi brought to
Baby 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.
-- and as portended, myrrh, with its analgesic properties,
was offered to Him on the Cross and was used, mixed with aloes, to
annoint Him after death:
And they bring him into the place called Golgotha, which being
interpreted is, The place of Calvary. And they gave him to drink wine
mingled with myrrh; but he took it not.
And Nicodemus also came, (he who at the first came to Jesus by night,)
bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.
They took therefore the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths,
with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.
Even the very angels in Heaven use incense, the smoke of
which comes with the prayers of the Saints.
Catholic Church still uses incense, of course, in
accordance with prophecy of Malachias, the fragrant smoke symbolizing
our prayers rising to Heaven and purifying what it touches. The incense
is kept in a covered, often boat-shaped liturgical
vessel called, unsurprisingly, a "boat," which symbolizes the
barque of Peter. The boat, made of bronze or brass and often silver or
gold-plated, comes with a spoon for scattering the incense in the
bowl-shaped matching burner, called a "thurible" or "censer." The
thurible holds burning charcoal (or wood) to ignite the incense and
hangs on chains so that it may be swung by
the priest when censing things (or people) and so it may be easily
carried by the thurifer -- the "Altar server" who assists the priest by
carrying the incense.
And another angel came and stood before the altar, having a golden
censer: and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer
of the prayers of all saints, upon the golden altar which is before the
throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the
saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel.
Incense is used during the Mass to bless the Altar when the
priest first ascends to it, and, during the Offertory, to bless the
bread and wine, the Crucifix and Altar (again), and the congregation.
Incense is also used during the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament,
during processions, funeral rites and to bless things like relics,
bells or the Gospel.
Other uses of incense are the 5 grains of incense, symbolizing the 5 wounds of Christ, inserted into the
Paschal candle on Easter, and the incense
burned on the altar stone of a new Altar during its consecration.
Incense is also placed inside the cavity (the "sepulchre") of the Altar
along with a relic, to symbolize the prayers of the Saint to whom
the relic belongs.
Also, frankincense is blessed on the Feast
of the Epiphany. The faithful may take some of his home with them
for use at their family altars.
Incense Use in the Home
Though stick and cone incense may be used during prayer and lectio divina, the classic way of using
incense at your family altar is to use resin incense (like the priests
use), which comes in large "grains," in a charcoal incense burner.
Simply place a piece of charcoal in the burner, light it until it is
glowing (it might spark at first), and place about a 1/2 a teaspoon or
so of incense on top (not so much that the charcoal will be smothered).
It is good to have a supply of those bamboo sticks that are used in
making shishkabobs: they come in handy for lighting not only charcoal
inside the burner, but for lighting tall pillar candles that've burned
down deeply inside their glass holders.
Charcoal can smolder for a very long time, so don't leave it unattended
-- and remember that the incense holder will be hot, so keep
little hands, and your own, away.
If you don't have or don't want to buy a regular incense burner, you
can use any fire-proof container -- bowls, a seashell, even -- for the
purpose. Place a little sand for insulation at the bottom of your
container if it sits directly on your table.
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