SHORTSVILLE — There’s nothing quite like incense to engage the senses in Catholic worship.
Smoke rises visibly through the air from the incense burning in a thurible, or censer. The thurible clangs as it is swung by a priest or altar server, and rattles against its chain.
Yet the most notable sensory part of incensation is the strong and unmistakable odor filling the church as the smoke expands outward, Father Anthony Amato acknowledged.
“It hits you pretty hard,” he noted.
The distinctly pungent scent, Father Amato explained, accentuates the spiritual importance of the prayers at that moment.
“You realize something is different here, something is moving me toward a greater reality. You can tell something special is happening here,” said Father Amato, parochial administrator of St. Peter Parish in the Finger Lakes-area communities of Clifton Springs (St. Felix Church), Phelps (St. Francis Church) and Shortsville (St. Dominic Church).
Roman Missal calls incensation ‘an expression of reverence and of prayer’
Incense is an aromatic substance derived from tree resin. General Instruction of the Roman Missal No. 276 describes incensation as “an expression of reverence and of prayer.” It may be used, if desired, at several points in the Mass: during the entrance procession; as Mass begins at the cross and altar; at the Gospel; at the preparation of the gifts; and during the Eucharistic Prayer.
Incensation “is not unique to Catholics,” Father Amato said, explaining that the practice was derived from Jewish worship in temples and synagogues as described in the Old Testament. He noted that incense is mentioned many times in the Bible, including Psalm 141:2, “Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening offering,” and Revelation 8:3, “Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones.”
Finger Lakes priest says incense smoke depicts prayers rising up to God
Father Amato said the practice of incensation is left to the discretion of the priest and he, for one, likes to do it frequently. He uses incense during Sunday Masses at St. Peter Parish when he has altar servers to assist him; during such eucharistic devotions as adoration and Benediction; and in honoring the body of the deceased at a funeral. He also uses incense for such special occasions as the blessing of a home or honoring a manger scene at Christmas Mass.
Incensation is important enough to Father Amato that he orders high-quality incense from Holy Cross Monastery — an Orthodox monastery in Wayne, W. Va. — so that his congregations can reach a peak level of reverence.
“Any time you have a pleasant smell, it’s going to affect your emotions as well,” he said.
Father Amato added that smoke from incense represents important connections between our earthly liturgy and heaven itself, as Revelation 8:4 illustrates: “The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel.”
“You see the smoke rising up. These are the prayers of the people rising up to God,” Father Amato said.
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