Incense and Sacrifice
With the new year, I am introducing a new feature that I am hoping to publish at least once a month on the parish website and in print. It will be called “Liturgy and Life.” That’s because the liturgy – the sacred prayer of the Catholic Church – is at the very core and center of our life. It is the most important thing that we do as a Christian community.
In this feature, I will try to run the gamut between addressing some detailed questions (why we do particular actions in the liturgy and what the symbolism behind them is) and some “big picture” questions such as, what is at the heart of the Mass, why we need the priesthood, what it means to pray, and so on.
If you have any topics you are curious about and would like me to address in this feature, please don’t hesitate to contact me at the parish office or in person (513-734-4041 or 513-553-3267. firstname.lastname@example.org).
I wanted to start today with the practice of incensing at Mass, since I have used that a lot in the Masses of the Christmas season. You might remember incense coming up recently in the Scripture readings at the Mass for Epiphany on January 6th (called frankincense there). From ancient times long before the coming of Christ, incense has been used as a sign of our prayers rising up to heaven (cf. Psalm 141, “Our Lord let my prayer be as incense in your sight, and the lifting up of my hands [in prayer] as an evening sacrifice”).
When Our Lord walked the earth 2,000 years ago, incense was used at the altar for the animal sacrifices offered to the Lord, such as when a goat or bull or turtle dove was offered by the priest to God as an oblation for the people, in reparation for their sins and in gratitude to God. In the new covenant, we offer up gifts of bread and wine rather than animal or grain sacrifices.
What our ancient Jewish ancestors practiced out of faith in God has been perfected, now that God has sent His only Son to be the one true and eternal High Priest to mediate the love of God the Father. Jesus Christ offered up His own life on the Cross for us in sacrifice, in atonement for the sins of all mankind – every sin committed by every person throughout human history.
The Holy Mass is the “unbloody sacrifice” – the making-present of the fruits and merits of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary – so that the power of the Cross touches us right where we are in our own lives today.
During the Mass, Jesus Christ is both the priest – the offerer of the sacrifice – and the victim – the one being offered in sacrifice. The ordained priest standing at the altar acts is privileged, by the grace he receives in the sacrament of holy orders, to act in the very person of Jesus Christ the High Priest, effecting the sacrifice.
So the Church has continued to use incense at Mass, to remind us that it is the sacrifice of Christ. While its use is no longer required at Mass, it is certainly encouraged, especially on the more solemn feast days. (I’ll have a column later on what makes a feast day a “solemn” one).