As you have already experienced, I use a great deal of incense at the celebration of mass. Several people asked me why we use incense, so I hope to explain this practice. Like so many of our practices, the use of incense comes from the Jewish traditions. If you recall, God established various sacrifices and ordinances in the Old Testament. God commands Moses in Exodus 30: 1-10 to build an altar where incense is offered up to God. Other sacrifices such as lambs, bullocks, grain, and oil were sacrificed on a different altar as commanded by God. Furthermore, God commands Moses how to make incense in Exodus 30:34-38. Incense was commonly burnt at the Jewish temple and the clouds of smoke symbolized the presence of God.
There are several images regarding incense in the New Testament but the most interesting is in Revelation (cf. Revelation 5:8, 8:3-5). Abbot Vonier explains, “The altar which figures so prominently in Revelation is not the altar of holocaust, but the altar of incense. In the Exodus, the children of Israel receive God’s command to fashion articles for the divine worship. The altar of incense and the altar of holocaust are different in style and purpose.” Vonier is saying that incense symbolizes the perfect form of worship in heaven which is adoration and praise. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were used to take away sin, to ask for God’s intercession, and to fulfill the responsibilities of the covenant but these are no longer necessary in heaven. Heavenly worship is adoration and praise as the saints look upon God and this is symbolized in the use of incense.
Incense was not used among the early Christians; in fact, many Christians were martyred because they refused to offer incense to the pagan gods. It was not until the 400’s that Christians commonly used incense or at least this is assumed to be the case since there is a lack of references concerning incense in early Christian writings. This historical reconstruction may not be accurate since the liturgy was protected under secret lest pagans and unbelievers mock the catholic faith. At any rate, the use of incense became widespread due to the lack of hygiene among the crowds, the smell of the dead at funeral masses, and its symbolism of heaven since the church represents heaven on earth. The psalmist prays that his prayer may arise to God like incense (cf. Psalm 141:2) and at mass we pray that our prayers may arise like incense in God’s sight.