Boswellia Sacra

Standing about 15 feet high, with thick stems and dense branches, the Boswellia Sacra looks like a shrub that needs pruning. Slash the trunk and a thick resin oozes out; wait a day or two and the resin will harden into nuggets that look like rock candy. These nuggets are the raw material of incense.

boswellia sacra

For thousands of years the Boswellia trees of Oman have provided the incense that burned in the temples of Egypt, Babylon, Athens, Rome, and of course the holy Temple in Jerusalem. Today, the incense burned in our parish churches at a solemn Mass, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, or at a funeral probably came from Oman. (Yemen has planted groves of Boswellia trees and exports incense, but Oman still dominates the market).

In the temple rituals of the ancient world incense played a symbolic and a practical role. Because it was rare, expensive, and would be completely consumed by fire, it was considered a suitable sacrifice to the gods. Furthermore, priests and people hoped that their prayers would rise to heaven like the great clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. Then there was the practical dimension of burning incense: in temples where animals were sacrificed and their carcasses burned, incense helped mask the stench.

incensoBoth the Old and the New Testaments tell us that incense is pleasing to God. In the book of Exodus God commands Moses to build a small, gold-plated altar specifically for burning incense every morning and evening (Exodus 30:1-8). In St. Luke’s gospel we read that St. Zachary the priest was about to offer incense in the Temple in Jerusalem when the archangel Gabriel appeared to announce that he and his wife Elizabeth were about to have a son, the future St. John the Baptist (Luke 1:8-13). And the book of Revelations describes a scene in Heaven in which an angel burned incense in a censer, “and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints … before God” (Revelations 8:3-4). In spite of biblical endorsement of the practice, there is no evidence that Christians during the first three hundred years of the Church used incense at Mass. Most probably Christians worried that clouds of incense billowing from their little house-churches would have attracted unwanted attention. Another reason could be that among the early Christians incense stirred up unhappy memories. During periods of persecution, Roman magistrates always offered a Christian the chance to save his or her life by burning a few grains of incense before an image of a pagan god and Christians who refused were executed.

preparing incenceFor reasons that are hard to pin down, by the late 4th century the Church in the East had begun to use incense in worship. Etheria, a nun from present-day France who in 381 began a lengthy pilgrimage to the Holy Land, tells us that incense was burned in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. As the bitter memory of incense’s link to the era of persecution faded, the Church in the West took up the custom, too, censing everything that was considered holy — the bread and wine, the altar, the crucifix, the book of the gospels, the celebrant of the Mass and the sacred ministers, and the congregation.

Today incense serves the same purpose as it did when Moses burned it in the desert — it pays homage to all that is holy, and symbolizes our prayers ascending to God.

18 Responses to “Boswellia Sacra”


  1. 1 Cara September 15, 2009 at 23:28

    Thanks. I didn’t know all this!
    I love the use of incense at Mass. It helps to support an atmosphere of solemnity and beauty that is fitting to the greatest gift given by Christ to His Church, and the highest prayer the Church has to offer to God: the True Worship of God the Father as offered by Christ on His Cross. It helps us to understand that at Mass we enter into and are united with the worship offered God in Heaven by His Angels and Saints. If we are told, after all, that the angels stand amid clouds of incense singing God’s praise in heaven, why shouldn’t they do the same gathered around the altar, singing God’s praise during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

  2. 2 Morinne September 15, 2009 at 23:45

    Thank you for the informative post.

    I love ritual, incense and Latin Masses but I’m afraid I’ve no time for the modern translation one. Boy! That sign of peace thing , I just can’t stand it! I told my priest that I wouldn’t mind if he places it at the end of Mass so I could scuttle out, but where it is now, it gets in the way!

    And unfortunately there’s no incense in the modern translation Mass😦

  3. 3 Mary Nicewarner September 16, 2009 at 00:20

    Cool! I didn’t even know where incense came from. My sister hates the smell of incense, but I love it. It brings to mind holiness and Heaven.

  4. 4 anne bender September 16, 2009 at 01:01

    Thanks once again for a wonderfully informative post Gabriella. I love incense, to me it’s a little smell of heaven!

  5. 5 ginny September 16, 2009 at 01:42

    I love the smell of incense. I also love the smell of the holy oils. Very informative and interesting, Gabriella.

  6. 6 Oman September 16, 2009 at 05:56

    Gabrielle – that’s a very nice overview. If you want to have a read of this PDF, its about Frankincense in Oman from a different perspective – the culture here in Oman (where I live) is very oriented towards it. http://www.omanholiday.co.uk/FRANKINCENSE-Trail-by-Tony-Walsh-for-Abode-Magazine.pdf

  7. 7 Cinzia September 16, 2009 at 11:53

    Very informative post Gabriella! What was the reason behind doing away with incense post Vatican II?

    Thankfully I have found a cathedral where incense is used during Mass – and I absolutely love it! The ceiling high above fills up with the wafts of smoke, and the beautiful fragrance seeps into everything. There is such a special and unique quality about incense! Makes everything holier and more solemn.

    Morinne, you are not alone in feeling the disappointments of the Novus Ordo masses. I agree with you, the shaking of hands and giving each other a “sign of peace” is one of the worst things to be introduced, as well as the abomination of letting any ol’ lay person touch the sacred hosts and take over from what only a priest – representative of Christ on earth – should be doing.

    Have you found a Latin Mass in your area, or at least one that even if spoken in the vernacular, sticks to the Roman Rite? … I did … not long ago, and I am absolutely thrilled. I now LOVE going to Mass and look forward every week to participating in such a dignified and solemn celebration in spite of the two hour travel to get there.

  8. 8 Victor S E Moubarak September 16, 2009 at 12:46

    Our church has two priests. The older one always uses incense during Mass – even though it is celebrated in English, not Latin.

    Let us remember of course that God needs nothing from us – incense, lit candles, flowers infront of statues, fasting and such like.

    We do these things as a sign of love, respect and devotion towards Him. And that’s good.

    What He has asked us to do is to love Him with all our heart, mind and soul and to love each other.

    Now that’s more difficult – but worth all the incense and candles in the world.

  9. 9 Adrienne September 16, 2009 at 12:51

    Good to find yet another Traditional Latin Catholic. God Bless you! I will be reading your posts little by little.

  10. 10 Davide September 16, 2009 at 17:00

    Alright Victor, I see what you’re saying. But if incense (and candles) help us to love Him with all our hearts, mind and soul, then wouldn’t removing them become an obstacle to reaching those goals? Just some food for thought.

  11. 11 Morinne September 16, 2009 at 20:02

    Cinzia, we’re a group of 23 people from our modern translation mass parish that have asked the bishop for the Mass in the Extraordinary Form.
    So we have to wait.
    Please let’s all pray for all those poor souls who don’t have an EF Mass nearby; after all this is the Pope’s wish.
    Cheeao.

  12. 12 Victor S E Moubarak September 16, 2009 at 20:11

    Hi Davide,

    I agree. I don’t think we should remove incense and candles etc ….

    I like a Mass celebrated with incense. It’s a pity we don’t have the Latin Mass here but we have incense in the English Mass. And plenty of candles too.

    Oh … I just remembered. In an Italian church I visited in the UK they don’t have candles as such. But they have artificial plastic candles infront of the statues and each candle has a light bulb in the shape of a flame. When you put money in the nearby box one of the “candles” lights up for a few minutes and then goes off.

    What do you think of that?

  13. 13 Kieran September 16, 2009 at 20:50

    Davide, I am one of those who badly needs incence and icons and holy atmosphere and gregorian music and holy art to help me pray with all my soul and mind. The silence and the smell of incence in a big cathedral for example attracts me to Christ.

    Victor, I’ve seen those artificial plastic candles in Spain.
    They’re awful.
    And during a noisy mass with busybodies all round doing goodness knows what, the kids were pressing all the candles to light them!

  14. 14 Davide September 16, 2009 at 22:31

    Victor and Kieran, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Many churches in Italy have them, especially the more modern Churches (modern by Italian standards is post WWII) and they do end up becoming toys for the spoiled children whose parents let them run around the Church during Mass. Here in the States, though, normal tall white candles seem to be the norm, in both the Novus Ordo and the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. My guess is that the modern man does not know what to do with traditions and changes them for the mere sake of change. Interesting discussion.

  15. 15 Marydon Ford September 16, 2009 at 23:08

    I wish I knew how to link to follow you … I found this most interesting about our church. Incense, tho, makes me VERY sick so I am grateful that they don’t use it often in our church during Mass.

    TTFN ~ Marydon
    blushingroseboutique.blogspot.com

  16. 16 Cinzia September 17, 2009 at 00:32

    If I may add my bit, I thoroughly dislike anything to do with money during Holy Mass, be it candles to be lighted, collections, special collections.

    It is simply awful that a Holy Mass and prayers get interrupted twice by collectors going around, everyone digging into their pockets or bags, tinkling of coins …. what a desecration of something as Holy and Sacred as Mass.

    Okay so the churches need our “elemosina” every week … so why not leave the collection box outside of the church and carry out the collections before and after Mass, outside of the church?

    I can’t help thinking of the time our Lord got angry and overturned the tables at the temple ’cause of money businesses going on … although I understand that was far worse, that scene invariably comes to mind.

    Davide, there are no spoiled children in the US I take it !🙂 Also, give me an Italian post-WWII church anytime, or ANY one of all those magnificent churches in the Bel Paese, old or new. Where I live most modern churches are ugly rectangles made of cement with a corrugated iron roof.

  17. 17 Davide September 17, 2009 at 19:13

    Ahahahaha! Cinzia you’re too much! I agree with you… a lot of churches in the New World are ugly!! And post WWII churches in Italy are beautiful. I was just refering to the fake, plastic candles, which are common in modern Italian churches.

    I’m afraid I do not know enough on the early evolution of the Mass to explain why the collection (both in the extraordinary and in the ordinary form of the Mass) is done during Mass. However, this money collection must not be compared to that which was taking place in the Temple of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. During our Mass, the collection is for the Church and the Parish Priest. And is therefore very important for the continuity of the Church. It is a donation on the part of the faithful, and therefore a GOOD act which cannot be disliked by Our Lord. What was occurring in the Temple of Jerusalem was actual business transactions, where people were even selling things for profit. Now, that is offensive to God. But they are offensive not in their nature, since doing business and gaining profit is not evil if done ethically, but because of where the money exchanges were taking place: in the house of Our Lord.

    Now onto the next point. I’m sure there are spoiled children everywhere. But over the years, I have noticed some big differences between the atmosphere in an Italian Church versus that in an American Church. One of these differences is the children’s behaviors. In the States, I have seen children talking to each other and not paying attention during Mass, but I have yet to see children being let loose to run around, something which unfortunately has become a weekly occurrence in Italy. Another big difference can be noticed when it is time to receive communion. In the States, the whole process is well ordered, with people advancing row by row in a calm and peaceful manner. In Italy, it is the most stressful part of the Mass, with people advancing to the front of the Church all at the same time. There have been times when I had to push myself into the non-existant Communion line. I do have to say though, that overall Italians are better dressed when they attend Mass. Seeing a man at Mass wearing a t-shirt is common in the States but rare in Italy. And Italian women are more modestly dressed. Here in the States, in the ordinary form of the Mass, I have seen young girls going up for Communion with hardly anything on. It’s terrible and it makes my blood boil! So both atmospheres have their pros and cons, but when it comes to children’s behaviors, the U.S. wins.

  18. 18 Cinzia September 18, 2009 at 00:43

    Thank you Davide for such a comprehensive response! You do know that I was joking about the kids🙂 I agree with you about the Italian children being let loose … it was the same in restaurants and so on. In fact, some parents are as bad as their kids !!!

    So: Davide vs Cinzia: 2 a 1 🙂

    Indeed, every place on earth has its pros and cons – and we all like to emphasize the cons of where we live individually I guess. It’s part of our human nature. Alas, having lived so far from my beloved Italy for so long, I now tend to see so many CONS here in Australia, and so MANY PROS in the Bel Paese !!! Here’s a prayer: Dear Heavenly Father – please give me the opportunity to return and savour all those magnificent Italian things before I die … even if only for a short while. Amen.

    (selfish prayer but what the heck!)

    About the money collection. Of course it is nothing like what was going on in the Temple. I still feel is detracts from solemnity and prayer – and should be relegated to the end of Mass at the very least. I was not suggesting to stop it altogether. When my husband comes to Mass with me, and he’s not Catholic, I always cringe when it comes to the collections. I think to myself: “here we go, here’s another point in the church’s un-favour!” People who are non Catholic might simply view these collections as money-making schemes just like all those sects out there who demand money from their followers ….

    But again, I understand this is mostly a personal point of view – and again I shouldn’t be “thinking” for my husband, or for others🙂

    Apologies for rambling on …. and thanks again for taking the time to reply.

    Have a wonderful day!


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