In ancient times incense was furnished by two trees, viz. the Boswellia sacra of Arabia Felix, and the Boswellia papyrifera of India, both of which belong to the Terebinthian family. Mention is made of it in Num.7:14; Deut. 33:10, etc. It was procured from the bark much as gum is obtained at present. To enhance the fragrance and produce a thicker smoke various foreign elements were added (cf. Josephus, "Bella Jud.", V, 5).
The use of incense was very common. It was employed for profane purposes as an antidote to the lassitude caused by very great heat, much as perfumes are now used. Mention of its introduction into pagan worship is made by classical writers (cf. Ovid, "Metamorph.", VI, 14, Virgil, "AEneid", I, 146). Herodotus testifies to its use among the Assyrians and Babylonians, while on Egyptian monumental tablets kings are represented swinging censers. Jewish usage was extensive and connected especially with the eucharistic offerings of oil, fruits, and wine, or the unbloody sacrifices (Leviticus 6:15). By the command of God Moses built an altar of incense (cf. Ex.. 30), on which the sweetest spices and gums were burned, and to a special branch of the Levitical tribe was entrusted this prayer office of daily renewal (1 Chronicles 9:29).
When, exactly, incense was introduced into the religious services of the Christian Church is hard to nail down. During the first four centuries there is no explicit reference to its use and yet there is no reference to it being forbidden or not used. However, with its consistent association and usage in the Temple and the references to it in the New Testament (cf. Luke 1:10; Revelation 8:3-5), it would be difficult to say that Christians were not familiar with it or that it was not used in conjunction with early Christian worship. Oftentimes the historical record does not mention things common or presumed but spends more ink on those things extraordinary or unusual. When references do occur, it is likely that they acknowledge the more uniform usage which has become ordinary or commonplace.
The earliest authentic reference to the use of incense in the worship of the Church is found in Pseudo-Dionysius ("De Hier. Ecc.", III, 2). The Liturgies of Sts. James and Mark -- which in their present form are not older than the fifth century -- refer to its use at the Sacred Mysteries. A Roman Ordo of the seventh century mentions that it was used in the procession of the bishop to the altar and on Good Friday (cf. "Ordo Romanus VIII" of St. Amand). The pilgrim Etheria saw it employed at the vigil Offices of the Sunday in Jerusalem (cf. Peregrinatio, II). Almost all Eastern liturgies bear witness to its use in the celebration of the Mass, particularly at the Offertory. In the Roman Church censing at the Gospel of the Mass appears very early, at the Offertory in the eleventh century, at the Introit in the twelfth century, at the Benedictus and Magnificat of the canonical Hours about the thirteenth century, and, in connection with the Elevation and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, about the fourteenth century. "Ordo Romanus VI" describes the censing of the celebrant, and in the time of Durandus (d. 1024/5; Rat. off. Div.) the assisting clergy were censed. In the present discipline of the Western Church incense is used at solemn Mass, solemn blessings, functions, and processions, choral offices, and absolutions for the dead. On these occasions people, places, and things such as relics of Christ and the saints, crucifix, altar, book of Gospels, coffin, remains, sepulchre, etc. are censed. While incense is generally burned, there are two cases when unburned incense grains are placed into the Pascal candle and placed into the sepulchre of consecrated altars.Those who find themselves interested in this subject may wish to also consult the Alcuin Club's, A History of the Use of Incense in Divine Worship, written by E.G. Cuthbert Atchley, which extensively covers the subject.
At Mass incense is generally blessed before use.
Symbolism and Manner of Incensing
Incense, with its sweet-smelling perfume and high-ascending smoke, is typical of the good Christian's prayer, which, enkindled in the heart by the fire of God's love and exhaling the odour of Christ, rises up a pleasing offering in His sight (cf. Amalarius, "De eccles. officiis" in P.L., CV). Incensing is the act of imparting the odor of incense. The censer (q.v.) is held in the right hand at the height of the breast, and grasped by the chain near the cover; the left hand, holding the top of the chain, is placed on the breast. The censer is then raised upwards to the height of the eyes, given an outward motion and slightly ascending towards the object to be incensed, and at once brought back to the starting point. This constitutes a single swing. For a double swing the outward motion should be repeated, the second movement being more pronounced than the first. The dignity of the person or thing will determine whether the swing is to be single or double, and also whether one swing or more are to be given. The incense-boat is the vessel containing the incense for immediate use. It is so called from its shape. It is generally carried by the thurifer in the disengaged hand.