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.
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.
Both 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.
For 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.