“Let my prayer come to you as incense” (Ps 140: 2)
Incense is an odorous rubber resin that, by burning, perfumes the air, purifies it, makes it pleasant to the nose and, in the sacred rites, prepares the spirit for the encounter with God.
This precious resin is produced from a shrub that grows wild in Asia and Africa. The incense gushes in the form of drops from the incisions that are made on the plants that produce it, and solidifies on contact with the air. The first secretion of the plant has no value and is thrown away, the second is considered mediocre and only the third gives the precious incense, known since ancient times by peoples of different languages and cultures.
Used on many different occasions, incense is linked to a profane religious and profane symbolism.
Some oriental peoples who practiced the cult of the dead believed that the smoke of incense, rising up to heaven, led the souls of the dead into the aftermath.
Among the pagans, the incense was burned before the images of the gods and before the emperor equated with them.
In the early centuries of Christianity, many Christians were martyred for refusing to perform this idolatrous gesture. Later, to distinguish between Christian and pagan worship, the use of incense by the liturgy was suppressed and was restored only after the edict of Constantine and the end of paganism.
In the Cult of Israel
Let us now take a quick look at the presence of incense in the Liturgy of the Old Testament, beginning with the biblical narrative in which Moses received from the Lord the order to build a special altar reserved for incense and linked to divine worship.
“You will make an altar on which to burn incense: you will make it from acacia wood (…). You will cover his plan, its sides, its horns with pure gold and make a golden border around it (…). You will bring the altar before the veil that conceals the ark of the Testimony, in front of the cover that is above the testimony, where I will give you a conference. Aronne will burn the aromatic incense on it: he will burn it every morning when he will re-sort the lamps and burn it even at sunset, when Aaron will fill the lamps: perennial incense before the Lord for your generations (…). It is a most holy thing for the Lord “(Ex 30: 1-10).
The incense was also placed above the oblations burnt on the altar as a memorial: “sweet perfume for the Lord” (cf. Lv 2).
Later, in the Temple of Jerusalem, in the annual celebration of the great Atonement (in Hebrew: Yom Kippur), the high priest passed the veil of the Temple and entered with the incense burner in the Holy of Holies, to burn “two handfuls of incense incense. pulverized “, then, a dense and perfumed cloud, enveloped every part of the most holy place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept (Cf. Lv16,12-13).
The scented resin of incense, was among the precious balms that composed the oil of the sacred anointing, used for the consecration of the sanctuary, of the High Priest Aaron and his sons (Cf. Ex 30: 22ff). In Israel, people, objects, and places reserved for the worship of the One God were incensed. All those who participated in divine worship were invited to give a sweet spiritual perfume: “Listen, holy children … As incense spread a good fragrance” (Sir 39,13-14).
At the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, we find an extraordinary figure: the Priest Zechariah. He is between the Old and the New Testament and has a very important role in the history of salvation. This priest of the Old Covenant received a special announcement from God as he “officiated before the Lord in the turn of his class”.
Zechariah was in the Holy (the environment of the Temple of Jerusalem that preceded the Holy of Holies) to “make the offering of incense. The whole assembly of the people prayed outside in the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense “(Lk 1: 9-11).
It was the angel Gabriel who brought the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist to the old priest. The place, the hour and the priestly task that Zacharias was preparing to carry out place the announcement of the Baptist’s birth in a sacred climate of prayer and spiritual offering.
The incense, linked to the worship of the Israelites, will later be present, with its rich symbolic value, also in the Christian liturgy, especially in the Church of the East.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the homage given to Jesus by some mysterious personages is described: the Magi. From the distant lands of the east to meet the “king of the Jews”, they offer him as a gift, with gold and myrrh, also the fragrant incense, kept in precious caskets (Cf. Mt 2,11).
In the fourth century of the Christian era, the famous pilgrim Egeria described a liturgy that took place in the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem: “When these three psalms were sung and these three prayers were performed, here are thuribles brought into the cave of the ‘Anastasi, because all the Anastasi basilica is filled with perfumes “. 
The solemn incensation of the sacred grotto in which Christ was resurrected preceded the reading by the bishop of the Gospel of the resurrection. The use of the incense in the Holy Sepulcher, reproposes the image of women who brought aromatic oils to embalm the body of the Lord and instead found the angel who announced its glorious resurrection (Cf Mc 1,6).
According to St. Paul, all Christians, with their testimony of faith, spread the perfume of Christ who offered himself to the Father “in a sacrifice of sweet smell” (Cf. 2 Cor 2: 14-16; Eph 5: 2).
In the heavenly Jerusalem, John saw in an extraordinary way the ritual known to him of the Temple of Jerusalem, with the fragrant and bloodless offering of incense, a symbol of the worshiping prayer of all the redeemed.
“Then came another angel and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given many perfumes to offer them together with the prayers of all the saints burning them on the golden altar, placed before the throne. And from the hand of the angel the smoke of the aromas ascended before God, together with the prayers of the saints “(Rev 8,3-4).
“The use of incense is optional in any form of Mass. You can use incense:
a) during the entrance procession;
b) at the beginning of the Mass, to incense the altar;
c) the procession and proclamation of the Gospel;
d) to the offertory, to incense the offerings, the altar, the priest and the people;
e) to the ostension of the host and of the cup after the consecration. “(PNMR 235).
The incensing of persons must always be understood in reference to their status as baptized persons: children of God and temple of the Holy Spirit. The same applies to the dead, whose bodies have been sanctified in life by the sacraments and await the final resurrection.
Incensing by moving the censer in the form of a cross, it recalls the death on the cross of the Lord; while circular incense means that the gifts and offers have been circumscribed, that is, reserved for divine worship.
Although it is optional, the use of incense gives solemnity to liturgical celebrations and creates an atmosphere of sacred reverence.
 See Egeria, Travel Diary, 24.10 – Ed. Paoline
[*] Aid for Formation and Liturgical Spirituality – Diocese of Rome
00184 Rome – P.za S. Giovanni in Laterano, 6
edited by Vittoria Scanu