Kinda Incensed Over Incense

The pun in my title for this post exaggerates a bit, but in attending the Easter Vigil at a local parish a week ago I found myself surprised, disappointed, and (to be honest) indignant at the malpractice of one ritual gesture during a liturgy that clearly the pastor and staff had put great care into planning and executing. For all their attention and efforts to celebrate the myriad symbols of the four successive services comprising the Vigil, one dropped gesture landed heavily on my heart. Attending with three young friends so touchingly committed to the church and their own lay ministries, I found myself a bit surprised at how personally hurt I felt for them and me at a pivotal point in the service.

The emotions arose at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The pastor/presider, not surprisingly during such a solemn service, incensed the gifts prepared on the table, then began circuiting the altar, headed halfway down the aisle of the long nave to incense the six-foot paschal candle positioned there, returned to the sanctuary to complete the circuit of the table, and then handed the thurible to a deacon. The deacon simply took it away. My feeling of disappointment, of a sort of emptiness, was over the priest’s and deacon’s complete neglect of the real-live human beings — the sacramental, mystical body of Christ in its members — participating in the eucharistic sacrifice. I felt reduced to a mere spectator, watching the priest dignify the objects of bread and wine and candle — symbols of the risen crucified one, indeed–but seemingly blind to the dignity of the baptized assembled for the great offering of praise and thanksgiving.

Earlier, in the Service of Light, the priest had incensed the paschal candle before he chanted the Exultet. At the Gospel proclamation one of the deacons carried the gold-clad book of the gospels up and down the center aisle and then around the entire interior perimeter of the very large nave, while an altar server walked backward in front of him, swinging the smoking thurible at the book (a rather athletic feat, at least to my eyes). The teenager turned around only to climb the steps back into the sanctuary and reach the ambo, where the deacon arrived behind him. To me, that minutes-long action seemed an odd insertion.  Some dozen neophytes were soon baptized by immersion in a pool set up in front of the altar table, and this done with care and robust symbolism, including the assembly’s professing baptismal promises simultaneously with the neophytes. But all of that, for me, just added weight to the heavy feeling I had as in disbelief I watched the thurible taken away once symbolic objects had been honored, leaving us, the liturgy’s faithful subjects, extraneous to the sacramental solemnity — left undignified. Hence, my feeling rather indignant.

I realize this is a negative reflection-of-a-blog-post. But the image and feeling from eight nights ago has haunted me with the concern over the difficult challenge the fundamental symbol of Christ’s presence in the people assembled in prayer and song (alluding here, of course, to Sacrosanctum concilium and the GIRM) continues to pose this half-century into the official reform and renewal of the rites. Giants in the liturgical movement decades ago taught and wrote of the need to attend to the fundamental, primary symbols of the rites. I ache in thinking that “sacrament” might persist in being identified more with objects than people and their shared engagement with them. In this Easter Season I find myself recommitted to raising up — in my preaching and presiding, in my teaching and writing — the sacramental character of the assembly in each and every one of its members as integral participants in the sacred mysteries.


  1. Is it possible at all that they forgot? We always have to have an MC with the Deacons at Masses with incense, to walk with them and make sure they incense when, who, and what they’re supposed to, especially if they’re in a parish that doesn’t use it frequently. But yes, I hate when that happens!

  2. Bruce – same thing happened at our parish Easter Vigil and I had the same personal reaction/emotion as you have framed here. Thank you!
    In asking and remotely planning this vigil liturgy, the pastor overwhelmingly made decisions that *saved* time – altho he gave a brief intro on Kairos and sacred space at the Holy Thursday liturgy and referred to that in the vigil opening. Oh well. (yes, we did have a combined 25 catechumens and candidates but so what)

  3. My first thought was that what you observed was a reaction to someone there having been berated by irate parishioners who find incense unpleasant (or worse). But the extended (excessive?) Gospel procession seems to rule that out. And saving time doesn’t seem to have been the issue.

    It sounds to me that this was likely a deacon error. Probably the result of fatigue, a momentary distraction or slip of attention/memory, and by the time the mistake was realized, it was too late to fix it. Obviously, the deacon should have incensed the celebrant, any concelebrants, then the congregation. And then handed the thurible to a server to take out. An alert and discreetly assertive MC (if there was one) or a well-trained server might have been able to catch him and get things back on track, but sometimes that’s just not possible.

    For whatever it’s worth, I would suggest you GENTLY speak to the pastor, or whoever is in charge of liturgy planning, about how much you missed that ritual gesture. I would guess whoever you talk to will be pleasantly surprised to hear that someone in the congregation thought enough of the symbolism to notice and care. And they may make a note to be sure to get it right next year.

    Then I’d say a prayer for that deacon (who may or may not have realized his error and, if he did, may have beaten himself up about it), and let the matter go. It seems a shame that it should spoil any more of your Easter joy.

  4. It nearly happened at ours, until the priest called the thurifer back and reminded him sotto voce of what he had forgotten.
    It’s a long liturgy. Mistakes happen.

  5. I’m puzzled by Bruce Morrill’s reaction.
    “The emotions arose at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The pastor/presider, not surprisingly during such a solemn service, incensed the gifts prepared on the table, then began circuiting the altar, headed halfway down the aisle of the long nave to incense the six-foot paschal candle positioned there, returned to the sanctuary to complete the circuit of the table, and then handed the thurible to a deacon. The deacon simply took it away.”
    The time in the liturgy that I would expect the incensing of the gifts on the altar to be followed by incensing of all the orders of the faithful is Offertory time. I do not recall seeing or experiencing an opening incensing of the altar that was followed by incensing of the lesser clergy and the faithful. Maybe I don’t get to enough big ceremonies these days.

  6. This nearly happened at my parish this year as well, with the Deacon, but the Priest gently instructed him to please incense the people. This is actually something that I should be able to fix for next year by including the Deacon in our liturgy meeting for Vigil and/ or the dress rehearsal. As a liturgist it is easy for me to assume that the clergy already knows what to do, but in reality just as I have to review the liturgy extensively every year so I do not forget something, it is important for me to help them in the same way. Like Katherine, I would recommend a charitable conversation with your parish liturgist.

    1. @Elizabeth Pike:
      Elizabeth — never presume that we clergy know what we are doing. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing,” is one of my most frequent silent liturgical prayers.

  7. A closely related error is the practice of differentiating between things or persons being incensed by the number of swings. The GIRM says: three doubles for the Blessed Sacrament, the offerings, the altar cross, the Book of the Gospels, the Paschal Candle, the priest and the people. But some parishes remind the people of their subordinated role by incensing them with single swings — as in the older rite.

  8. As I was censing the people this morning the thought passed through my mind that this does add a minute or two to the liturgy and I wondered whether some people found it an unnecessary prolongation of the Mass. Then the thought passed through my mind, No, this is a very important part of the liturgy. I’m glad Bruce agrees with me.

    On the manner of incensation, Jonathan is correct as to the principle of not differentiating people by the number of swings, but the GIRM doesn’t mention “doubles,” but only three (or two) swings of the thurible:

    Three swings of the thurible are used to incense: the Most blessed Sacrament, a relic of the holy cross and images of the Lord exposed for public veneration, the offerings for the Sacri ce of the Mass, the altar cross, the Book of the Gospels, the paschal candle, the priest, and the people.

    Two swings of the thurible are used to incense relics and images of the Saints exposed for public veneration; this should be done, however, only at the beginning of the celebration, following the incensation of the altar.
    GIRM 277

    In practice, I see all sorts of ways of using the thurible, not all of them edifying.

  9. Fritz, this may be taking us down a road of liturgical esoterica, but the “doubles” I was referring to come from the Latin ductus, which is the word that appears in the IGMR.

    This webpage follows the distinction between ductus and ictus down a winding path: through commentaries on the old rite, dubia submitted to the Congregation of Rites, etc. Other liturgy webpages draw the same distinction. I haven’t checked the primary sources.

  10. I had no idea. That’s what I get for not consulting the Latin. Of course I’m not sure I’d have had any idea what a ductus was without the link you provided.

    The things they forgot to tell us in formation!

  11. One of the delights of going to Mass in Normandy is that the custom there is for the thurifer to swing the thurible through a full circle in processions. Its quite spectacular when a liberal amount of incense has been added.

  12. One of the reasons I loved EAinCW so much was its identification of the assembly as the primary liturgical symbol. Not that seems to have been forgotten.

  13. I have seen all manner of errors and omissions in the liturgy, often explained away as, “It doesn’t matter, no one noticed.. no one knows how it’s supposed to go anyway.” Mistakes happen, I prove that more often than I care to admit. But to shrug off errors and invite more of them through a careless attitude is liturgical malpractice.

  14. It would be interesting to know how often/regularly incense is used at this parish throughout the year. My hunch would be rarely, if ever, apart from the Vigil. Probably the best way to be certain this doesn’t happen would be to encourage more regular use of incense. Not necessarily every Sunday, but frequently enough so that the deacon and the assembly experience its honorific symbolism.

  15. Maybe the deacon just forgot. Or was overwhelmed or tired by this point. Maybe he was never trained in the proper use of incense at the offertory in his pre-ordination training. Maybe incense is rarely if ever used in this parish and he didn’t know what to do. I don’t understand the consternation around something that’s pretty much been deemed irrelevant and unnecessary in the revised liturgy, then being hurt when it wasn’t used correctly (based on the pre-Vatican II liturgical models). No offense Bruce but if it was someone, like me, who appreciates the regular use of incense and complained because it wasn’t used “properly” at this point in the Mass I more than likely would have been told to chill or relax, it’s no big deal.

  16. Before getting all twitchy over this and other trivialities, read Romans 8: 35-39 and give thanks for the gift of full and free worship. Then be quiet and pray for Christians living in Iraq, refugees, modern day slaves and the multitude of unfree worldwide. A little perspective, please. The constant complaint on this site over minutia is an embarrassment given the purpose of liturgy as a hope and balm for the great suffering experienced by so many.

  17. At my parish, a former pastor NEVER incensed the people; he told me that people complained about it, found it irritated their respiratory passages, etc.

    A friend of mine had a similar experience in a parish several states away from me.

    So, is this becoming more common — to not incense the entire Body?

  18. Ann Riggs : So, is this becoming more common — to not incense the entire Body?

    If censing the assembly means walking right up to people and swinging smoke in their faces, yes, this practice should be ended. But the standard way of censing the people is to stand at the front of the sanctuary and swing the thurible front, left, and center toward the people. (Even when censing individuals, there’s plenty of space between thurifer and individual.) Where it’s really irritating is where the thurifer seems to be trying to give each person some smoke, which is not the intent here.

  19. At our Cathedral the Deacon or Thurifer always incenses the assembly (with three double swings) after the Priest has incensed the altar and gifts.

    The Gospel Procession described above strikes me as a little over the top.

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