Incense is a peculiar word that means "something burned." Normally that's a bad smell; but when it comes to incense, it's intended to be a good one. That's a hard sell for the many people who start choking the minute the censor appears in a sanctuary with poor ventilation. And depending on the grade of incense used, the smell may not be entirely pleasing.
The use of incense comes from ancient times and was routinely utilized in the Near East. It had a practical purpose: religious sacrifices frequently involved the slaughter of animals, a bloody affair that certainly imparted a queasy odor to the ritual's participants. Incense was also used in domestic life, as opportunities for hygiene weren't as available without indoor plumbing. Since family livestock was often brought indoors during inclement weather, the need for a little perfuming of the air is understandable.
To make incense, aromatic gums or resins were added to a smoking pot. Frankincense was the preferred substance. Large tear-shaped gums from the Boswellia tree were harvested to make it, the whiter grade considered the finest. Other valued perfume agents were myrrh and balsam. Two kinds of incense are among the gifts the magi bring to honor the infant Jesus, along with gold. This hints at how precious better grades of incense were. Many cultures including Israel established permanent incense altars to contain the coals: a small cube of limestone often displaying horns at the corners. Portable censors and special incense spoons have also been found in archaeological sites in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.
In religious rituals of Israel, only the priest was permitted to offer incense along with the sacrifice. One of the reasons Saul, first King of Israel, loses divine favor and is replaced by David, is his refusal to wait on the proper presider, Samuel, to arrive to perform the ritual. Impatient Saul administers it himself. The prophet Ezekiel likewise disapproves when incense is used by Israelites in any ritual not intended to honor Israel's God.
Burnt incense symbolizes prayer rising to God, as Psalm 141 suggests. It also signals the holy Presence in persons, places, or objects. In processions, the Monstrance is preceded by the censor. The Paschal candle is incensed at Easter. On special feasts, a saint's image may be incensed. In our liturgies, the priest is incensed by the deacon, just as he incenses the altar and the assembly. To find the Holy, follow the smoke!
Scriptures: Exodus 30:34; Leviticus 2:1, 15; 5:11; 6:8; 10:1; 26:30; Numbers 5:15; 16:5; 1 Samuel 2:28; 13:8-14; Psalm 141:2; Proverbs 27:9; Isaiah 43:23; 60:6; Jeremiah 6:20; 17:26; 41:5; Ezekiel 8:11; 16:18; 23:41; Matthew 2:11; Revelation 8:3-5
Books: Signs and Symbols of the Liturgy: An Experience of Ritual and Catechesis, by Michael Ruzicki, Victoria Tufano, et. al (Liturgy Training Publications, 2018). Bulletin Inserts for the Liturgical Life of the Parish: Gestures, Postures, and Practices of the Liturgy, by Paul Turner (Liturgy Training Publications, 2019).