According to neurological researchers, our brains take in more information in a day than the best computers in the world take in over the course of a year. Our body is made up of five classical senses including sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Current research now indicates that the human body has additional sensors that focus on internal control.
Four of our five classical senses are first received by the thalamus, which is located in the limbic system. Smell, of the five classical senses, is processed directly in the amygdala. For centuries, it has been believed that smell is the sense closest attached to memory and our brain’s ability to make meaning of the world around us.
The use of incense was quite common in the pagan ancient world. Incense was also very common in the Jewish tradition that Jesus himself would have been exposed to. The Book of Numbers tells us that incense was included in thanksgiving offerings. The Book of Exodus shares with us the story of Moses building a golden altar for the burning of incense.
As Catholics, we are not entirely sure when incense was introduced into our liturgy, but we do know that incense was quite common for the Jewish people in the time of the early Church. We do know for certain that incense was used in liturgies from the fifth century onward. The use of incense likely continued from the Jewish tradition into the earliest days of the Church. Liturgical rubrics, just like we use today, indicate that incensation at the Gospel and offertory appeared in the 11th century while incense for exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament began around the 14th century.
One thing to remember about Catholic liturgy is that every single word, action, and song symbolizes a theological truth. Incensation, through the visual symbolism of smoke and the smell of fragrance, signifies purification and sanctification. Throughout our faith’s history, smoke from incense has symbolized our prayers lofting up to heaven. Psalm 141 sings of prayer coming to God like incense. Incense has also been used to symbolize the heavenly setting.
At its core, incense reveals a deeper truth about our Catholic faith: prayer is what purifies and sanctifies us. Incense calls us to prayer. Think about it like this: Do you see and smell incense very often outside of the Catholic Mass? Do you see and smell incense at every Mass and liturgy? On both accounts, probably not. When you walk into Mass and catch that smell, you know something great is happening… that is the purifying and sanctifying grace that we are receiving.