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At Mass and other liturgical services we see priests and altar servers swinging censers, sending clouds of incense wafting through the air. In Catholic liturgy, everything symbolizes a theological truth.
So, what does incense symbolize?
Incense has been used in Christian liturgy from its earliest centuries. In fact, it was a part of the Jewish tradition that came before it, a use that was commanded by God himself and recorded in Sacred Scripture.
1. INCENSE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
God commanded Moses to make an Altar of Incense for worship in the Tabernacle:
You shall make an altar to burn incense upon; of acacia wood shall you make it . . . And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. (Exodus 30:1-10)
God also commanded how the incense should be made, a “holy recipe”:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; and you shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. And the incense which you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be for you holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 30:34-38)
From these passages and others we infer that incense was part of a ritual cleansing and purification of the sacred space of the Tabernacle, making it a worthy place for the worship of God – according to His terms. In fact, frankincense, mentioned in the Bible, is now known to have antiseptic and disinfectant properties.
God gave these specific instructions to Moses because worship of God by Israel in His earthly Tabernacle was a pattern of the worship of God by the angels in His heavenly throne; that is, worship on earth was to be unified with the worship in heaven.