The practice of burning incense has been an integral part of Catholic practice since the church’s formation. Although frankincense and myrrh are the most commonly used, other materials such as benzoin, dark spices, flowers, and aromatic woods such as cedar, pine, and sandalwood are often used as well. It is often believed within the Catholic tradition that smoke symbolizes prayers being sent to heaven.
The origination of incense use within Catholic traditions most likely stems from the story of Christ’s birth. In this popular story, three magi came to visit Jesus, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. During this time period, frankincense and myrrh were quite costly and typically withheld for religious use. The use of such incense is still quite prevalent within the modern church and the scent of fragrance is often attributed to religious practice in the eyes of many Catholic practitioners. Small chunks of resin were placed upon charcoal briquets within either a metal censer or a thurible, which is a distinct type of lantern which is suspended by chains and then swung to release the smoke.
The Catholic church considers incense to be both purifying and spiritual in nature. During holy days and other celebrations, they often swing a censer full of frankincense, myrrh, and/or benzoin during several distinct parts of the ceremonies. This includes locations such as the altar and sanctuary. The practice is also often done during funerals, to give a final blessing to the deceased. Incense is also used during Easter celebrations, in which five grains of incense, thought to represent the five wounds of Christ, are embedded within the paschal candle.