You might have noticed during the three days of the Easter Triduum, the fragrance of incense came and disappeared and then returned, hewing closely to the story of Our Lord’s Death and His Resurrection. We Roman Catholics have been using incense for more than a dozen centuries. We use incense as a symbol of our prayers rising to heaven. We imagine the fragrant scent rising and pleasing the nostrils of God. I love that our Church cares enough about sanctification that it has a special name for the people who incense a church: thurifers.
You see, we don’t just leave sticks of incense laying around the sanctuary; an altar server is charged with incensing the church with a thurbile (pictured below). This thurifer has such an important job that even the number of swings of the thurbile has special rules and meanings. Perhaps the world’s biggest, most famous thurible is the massive one found in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in northwest Spain.
On Holy Thursday, in Roman Catholic Churches across the globe, the incense is everywhere. It sanctifies the path of the Blessed Sacrament. It sanctifies the Gospel, whose words are sacred since they came from the mouth of Our Lord. It sanctifies the altar, where bread and wine become Jesus’s body, blood, soul and divinity. On Good Friday we commemorate the Lord’s Crucifixion and His death at Calvary, a hill outside ancient Jerusalem’s walls. The incense is gone. It does not return until the Great Vigil of Easter. That is when the thurifer incenses the Paschal Candle lit by the Easter fire. He also incenses the altar where, once again, consecration happens and we celebrate the most important Mass of our liturgical year.
Earlier this week, when we were in the choir loft rehearsing our pieces for the Easter Triduum liturgies, the altar servers were in the sanctuary below, preparing for Holy Thursday Mass. Our pastor was running them through their movements, including their procession down the aisle at the start of the Mass. I smiled to myself when I saw one of the servers walking backward. B. is one of those “very good kids,” a son of devout parents who is unfailingly courteous and shows great respect to the church’s traditions. I thought perhaps he was letting off some steam by walking backwards. What I didn’t realize until Holy Thursday Mass was that B. was doing exactly what he was supposed to: he’s our parish thurifer. He sanctifies the path that lies before the Blessed Sacrament as the priest processes.
To incense is to symbolize our prayers rising to God. To incense is a sacred action. When that first whiff rose into the choir loft Thursday evening, I thought: No place else on earth do I smell that. I’m in my true home now.
I have cried to Thee, O Lord, hear me: hearken to my voice, when I cry to Thee. Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight; the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice.