A question came up during one of the Papal Mass coverage channels today about the use of incense in the Mass. The person who responded gave a bit of a flub to the answer, though I am saying this with affection. He’s not alone; as I’ve been saying all along, even the priests are not fully educated in their theological heritage.
He answered that the incense represents and “symbolizes” prayers rising to God. Yes, that is true, but an answer like that makes it sound like some sort of pagan thing, or symbolic gesture. The accurate and full answer would have been to explain it is a symbolic substitute for the real smoke that would have risen toward heaven as burnt offerings were made by the Israelites on the Temple altar as instructed by God. As I wrote in my blog just a day or two ago, the Catholic Church is the only Church who still carry out God’s instructions to sacrifice to him on his altar. (I mention that Muslims also do this, but yearly on the Haj and not as an altar offering). Jesus Christ taught the Apostles and disciples that bread and wine, which become his Real Presence, replace the burning of slain animals or bowls of grain and oil as sacrifice to God. This is why the Sunday service for Catholics is called “The Sacrifice of the Mass.” Catholics are still obeying God’s instructions to keep his day holy and to offer to him the perfect sacrifice.
Anyway, in the Bible God himself refers to the smoke and aroma of the burnt offerings as they ascend to him in heaven. Since sacrifices are no longer burned, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches replace that smoke with incense as they “offer up” Jesus Christ as the Pascal Lamb AND they retain the requirement placed on the High Priest by God to offer up incense on a separate altar or via censer.
Exodus 30: 1, 7-8
For burning incense you shall make an altar of acacia wood…
On it Aaron shall burn fragrant incense. Morning after morning, when he prepares the lamps, and again in the evening twilight, when he lights the lamps, he shall burn incense. Throughout your generations this shall be the established incense offering before the Lord. On this altar you shall not offer up any profane incense, or any holocaust or cereal offering; nor shall you pour out a libation upon it.
See, the burning of fragrant wood and resin that comprise incense was an actual burnt offering that the Lord stated is a requirement. God uses the word “offering” because there is nothing symbolic about it; God is requiring them to obtain wood and resin and sacrifice it through burning to him. God specifies that wood and resin shall be burned as offering to him on a special altar that is separate from the altar used for burning sacrificed animals, grain or libations, such as oil or wine.
In times of dire emergency to atone to God, incense was placed in censers, and taken by the High Priest himself among the people to save them from God’s wrath.
Numbers 17: 11-15
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, put fire from the altar in it, lay incense on it, and bring it quickly to the community to make atonement for them; for wrath has come forth from the Lord and his blow is falling.” Obeying the orders of Moses, Aaron took his censer and ran among the community, where the blow was already falling on the people. Then, as he offered the incense and made atonement for the people standing there between the living and the dead, the scourge was checked. Yet fourteen thousand seven hundred died from the scourge, in addition to those who died because of Core. When the scourge had been checked, Aaron returned to Moses and the entrance of the Meeting Tent.
Again you can see there is nothing symbolic about incense on God’s altar. It is the actual offering, the sacrifice, the burning of the wood and resin that is required by God. Also, the offering of incense is to be performed only by a descendant of Aaron (this means, the legitimate High Priest rather than either laymen or false claimants to the priesthood).
Numbers 17: 5 This cover was to be a reminder to the Israelites that no layman, no one who was not a descendant of Aaron, should approach the altar to offer incense before the Lord, lest he meet the fate of Core and his band.
It is obvious that offering incense is not symbolic, and is of itself a burnt offering made to the Lord, one that God so highly values that it has a separate altar for it, and severe punishment for those who claim rights to the priesthood that they do not have, and attempt to wield the censers as part of their rebellion, as Core rebelled against Moses. (The entire rebellion of Core is related in Numbers 16, 17.
Now, when you understand the very highest right of the priest to offer incense to the Lord on his altar, you can appreciate in this brief mention all the more the blessedness of Zachary, the father of St. John the Baptist.
Luke 1: 1-13
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia; and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were just before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. But they had no son, for Elizabeth was barren; and they were both advanced in years.
Now it came to pass, while he was officiating in the order of his course as priest before God, according to the custom of the priest’s office, that he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord to burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right of the altar of incense. And Zachary, seeing him, was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zachary, for thy petition has been heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son and thou shalt call his name John.”
Casting lot, by the way, was the way the priests set their schedules for certain daily tasks. It was not done this way because they were gamblers or superstitious. Casting lots ensured that certain priests did not always claim the highly prized tasks, making it available through statistical chance ensured fairness.
So… now you can see the incredible significance of what Luke details; detail that the modern eye does not understand and would skip over. Few people read THE ENTIRE Bible and absorb its implications throughout, certainly fewer than used to do so. The offering of incense by the Catholic Church is the direct carry over of form of sacrifice commanded by God that even the most orthodox of Jewish worship has lost along with the stopping of sacrifice in the Temple in general. When the Israelites lost their structure of King, High Priests and Temple they stopped performing most of the ritual commanded by God. Yet the first Christians, who were Jewish, were sensitive to God’s commandment for sacrifice and this is why the Mass exists in the form that it does today, two thousand years later.
Luke took the time to record the careful detail that it was during the offering of the incense that Zachary, who would be the father of St. John the Baptist, received the visitation from Gabriel. God could have sent Gabriel to Zachary at any time, naturally, being God he chooses the time that is right for him. God has repeatedly shown the importance of the offering of incense and here he repeats it by sending Gabriel to announce the pending birth of St. John the Baptist exactly as Zachary has his turn to perform the incense offering. Incense offering is no joke and no casual matter to God. This is because God promised to Moses the “mercy seat” on the Ark, and the incense offering altar is part of the giving of God’s mercy, but also his judgment. So God sends Gabriel to announce the great mercy of the birth of a son to Zachary and Elizabeth (who had been reproached for being barren, since at those times being barren was viewed as a sign of divine disapproval). Because Zachary doubts his own eyes and ears, and the message of the angel Gabriel, as a sign he is struck dumb until the birth of his son.
And the people were waiting for Zachary, and they wondered at his tarrying so long in the temple. But when he did come out he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them, but he remained dumb.
Here is a reminder that the offering of the incense was a time for collective worship at the temple. The priest would go inside the temple, while the people remained outside in prayer. So the offering of incense is a specific time and form for the community to gather and worship. Catholic and Orthodox Churches retain this, with the Orthodox doing so even more frequently during each service than the Catholic. So the Catholics and the Orthodox do not incense because the aroma and the smoke symbolizes prayer to God. Incense offering IS sacrifice to God and is part of the timetable for worship service, retained from the Jewish tradition by the Apostles and disciples. This is why Luke so carefully documents that God sent Gabriel to Zachary to announce the pregnancy of Elizabeth with John the Baptist, and the Apostles and disciples would never dream of eliminating what is so obviously an important requirement by God for sacrifice. Remember that the incense altar was separate from the animals, grain and libations altar, so while Jesus became, at his instruction, the bread and the wine Real Presence sacrifice, the Apostles would have understood that the sacrifice of incense, a separate altar and a call to prayer, is to be retained.
Lest there be any doubt of that, there is a dark warning in the Book of Revelation.
And another angel came and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he might offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which is before the throne. And with the prayers of the saints there went up before God from the angel’s hand the smoke of the incense. And the angel took the censer and filled it with the fire of the altar and threw it down upon the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, and flashes of lightning and an earthquake.
St. John the Evangelist, the last living of the twelve Apostles, then describes the seven angels with trumpets and the punishing disasters that befall earth during the End of Time.
So you must understand now, how important the message is here and how “not symbolic” it is to God. Here an angel of God is taking the heavenly golden censer, filling it with the prayers of the saints upon the golden altar before God’s throne, and hurling it with wrath to the earth. This is opposite of what had been the right order, of humans offering prayerful incense offering up to God. This indicates that rather than correct offering and piety on earth, the reverse is happening. Therefore God’s angel hurls the censer to the earth, filled with the prayers of saints who had been unjustly treated. The incense offering that was instructed to Moses as part of the Mercy Seat on the Ark is now used to initiate the destructive forces that befall earth at the End of Time.
This is why it is essential to not be all “New Age” and “symbolic” when you read the Bible. God is spelling out for everyone in terms that no one can misunderstand what is important to him and what is not. The meaning of the sacrifice of incense as a physical and real offering of prayer for mercy in judgment cannot be mistaken to those who read and comprehend the passages I have indicated here. Only an idiot would try to figure out “what kind of natural disaster and who might cause it” that the censer “symbolizes.” The censer is an obvious ritual requirement that is a timetable for prayer for the deliver of God’s mercy. That is clearly explained in the Old Testament, and testified to in the New Testament in those two locations, Luke 1 and Revelation 8.
Knowing this, you can make an educated guess what it is that specifically angers God so much that his angel hurls the golden censer to earth, filled with the prayers of saints. These are saints that have been slain unjustly. They are mentioned in Revelation 6: 9-11.
And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God, and for the witness that they bore. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord (holy and true), dost thou refrain from judging and from avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told to rest a little while longer, until the number of their fellow-servants and their brethren who are to be slain, even as they had been, should be complete.
Everyone likes to be the virtuous hero of the fairy tale, and so some who claim to be “experts” in being “raptured” and so forth view themselves as the heroes of this saga. But that is not a correct Biblical reading. They make up fairy stories that all the “good Christians” have “raptured up into heaven” and that the bad people left behind divide into the converted and the satanic, and it is the death of the converted that this refers to. Wrong! Not only is that a crazy interpretation of passages in Daniel and elsewhere in the Bible, but the evidence is as clear as the black print on the white paper. When is the censer mentioned in the New Testament? As we have shown, it is when Gabriel announces to Zachary the pregnancy of Elizabeth that will lead to the birth of St. John the Baptist, five months before he announces that Mary will be with child, the Savior. Pregnancy was announced by Gabriel … the mercy of the bearing of a child to Zachary and Elizabeth, a child who would proclaim the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The offering of incense using the censor is the time when God announces his mercy in the form of the man St. John the Baptist, who makes straight the way of the Lord Jesus Christ. The censer is a rounded object containing sweet offering, just as the pregnant Elizabeth and Mary.
So who would be the many saints who died for the sake of God, whose souls under the altar cry out for the Lord’s judgment and vengeance? They are the millions of pre-born and infants.
Here is another set of facts to help understand why the Catholic faith takes the stances that it does regarding both the liturgy and its focus on the community of saints. When the Church first formed, during the time of the Apostles and their immediate successors, wherever they were persecuted they often met in catacombs and tombs to conduct worship service in secret. They could not have public churches or even private home gatherings in time of danger. So they conducted the Church Masses directly on the graves of saints. This is where the tradition of having relics of the saints placed under the Catholic Church altars came from. Now, this did happen while John was still alive but for the most part this tradition developed during the next one to two hundred years of persecution. So John is noting that in heaven, there are the souls of martyred saints crying out directly under God’s very altar. This is another reason that the Church views the veneration of saints and their relics, and their placement under the altar, as not only Biblically accurate and justified, but something they darn well better do because that is what God himself does in heaven. Again, people who accuse the Catholic Church of not being Biblically sound need their eyes and brains checked. John saw extremely clearly how God perceives the communion of saints, and John saw the practice of the relics of saints below the altar in heaven, well before the practice became a universal need (during the times of persecution) on earth. This is why the Popes and the early Church Fathers, reading the book of Revelation, and recalling where Zachary received word from Gabriel, made the connection regarding the ongoing communion of saints in heaven, and the need for justice toward them on earth. Saints are anyone who dies for the faith. The first saints were the Holy Innocents who were slain by Herod as he sought to kill the baby Jesus. Saints are not just adults who are persecuted for preaching Jesus Christ. Saints are anyone who dies for the sake of God. The Holy Innocents, and the day they are commemorated by the Church (December 28), testify that babies slain to suppress or defy the word of God are saints too.
I have been in great fear for humanity ever since the 1970’s, when the golden altar of heaven is filling with the souls of aborted babies and abused children. It is not the adult saints who go to martyrdom who cry out for justice in heaven, for they are casting their crowns before the Lord and praising his name. No, it is the babies who are unjustly slaughtered who cry out to God. I shudder for humanity, as does the Pope.
It is not too late, but it has been pushed as far toward too late as anyone can imagine, and beyond. Humans need to radically convert and repent and remember that they must make offerings that are pleasing to the Lord, the Mass, rather than throwing in his face offerings of aborted babies and abused infants. It is that which causes God’s angel to hurl the golden censer right back from God’s altar to humans, who forget how to merit, ask for, and obtain God’s mercy through Jesus Christ. Non-Catholic Christians, far from deserving your enmity and scorn, you should be thanking the Catholic Church most humbly for preserving the word of God, as spelled out most clearly in the Bible, far better than you have. The Catholic Church in unity is still carrying out the instructions of God the Father and Jesus Christ. Loving Jesus Christ, and praising and worshipping his name are not enough, as he himself repeatedly says. He told Peter that if he loves him then he must “Feed my sheep.” The Apostles and St. Paul, with their deep knowledge of Jewish tradition and requirements, passed along through the apostolic succession a clear understanding of all that they must preserve to satisfy God’s requirements for humanity. I hope that this spiritual direction and Bible reading lesson about the meaning and requirement for incense offering during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass helps you to better understand that God will be taking accounting of how his Church has been treated and how his instructions have been followed.