Smoke! Smoke! SMOKE! or In Persona Christi Corporis A reflection (or perhaps rant) about liturgical incense

Let me start by warning you that most people will find this post almost, but not quite, entirely uninteresting.*

Out of the gate, I want to be clear, I am a BIG fan of incense in the liturgy. I agree with the thought (if not quote) attributed to the rector here at the seminary that, if something is worth doing, it is worth overdoing. This is the school I come from when it comes to incense. However, at the same time, I am rather persnickety about the rubrics of the Liturgy. Now, that is not to say that I feel the “Say the black; do the red” people are right. Their little mantra is simplified to the point of inaccuracy.  As an aside, it is those same people who, ignoring the instructions that have been provided by the Church, that is, the red, insist upon the alterations to the Liturgy against which I am speaking.

First, I will make an argument in regard to the rubrics, then I will offer some theological reflections on the “why” behind those rubrics.

The Catholic liturgical instructions on incense

If you are uninterested in the rubrical argument and just want to read the theological reflection I am proposing, you can skip this part and jump down to the theology. This will probably be pretty dry for many.

The Church actually gives precious little instruction on how to use incense in the Mass. To be fair to my opponents, that is why they go back to seek guidance from (what is now called) the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, also known as the Tridentine Mass, Mass of Pius V, TLM, Pre-conciliar Mass, or any other number of monikers.

Some help for non-liturgical-pedants:
You see, the instructions for what should happen in the Mass are found in two places: the General Instruction to the Roman Missal (GIRM) and the rubrics (that is the red text in the Missal – the word rubric comes from the Latin for “red”). The official and authoritative interpretations of these come from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW) in the Vatican, whose interpretations are published in a periodical called Notitiae. That is the source for the instructions I am going to share.

Here’s what we get from the GIRM (trimmed to the pertinent part)


Three swings of the thurible are used to incense: the Most Blessed Sacrament, a relic of the Holy Cross and images of the Lord exposed for public veneration, the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass, the altar cross, the Book of the Gospels, the paschal candle, the Priest, and the people.

The Priest incenses the offerings with three swings of the thurible or by making the Sign of the Cross over the offerings with the thurible before going on to incense the cross and the altar.

Now, on the whole, that’s clear, but there are some points open to interpretation, still. For example, I have seen discussion of what is meant by “swing.” Single? double? Triple? So, for the official interpretation, we turn to Notitiae.

In 1978, the following question was asked:

2. In a Mass with the people celebrated in a more solemn manner, different methods of incensing the offerings and the altar are used: on the one hand a simple and plain method, on the other hand the same method as the rite for incensing prescribed in the preceding Missal. Which practice should be followed?

The Congregation for Divine Worship responded as follows:


It must never be forgotten that the Missal of Pope Paul VI, from the year 1970, has taken the place of that which is improperly called “the Missal of St Pius V” and that it has done this totally, whether with regard to texts or rubrics. Where the rubrics of the Missal of Paul VI say nothing or say little in specifics in some places, it is not therefore to be inferred that the old rite must be followed. Accordingly, the many and complex gestures of incensation according to the prescripts of the earlier Missal (cf. Missale Romanum, T. P. Vaticanis, 1962: Ritus servandus VII et Ordo Incensandi, pp. LXXX-LXXXIII) are not to be repeated.

When incensing, the celebrant (IGMR [GIRM in Italian] 51 and 105) should proceed in this simple manner:

a) with regard to the offerings: he incenses with three double-swings, as the deacon does for the Gospel;

b) with regard to the cross: when the celebrant comes before it, he incenses with three double-swings;

c) with regard to the altar: he incenses all around the side as he circles the altar, with no distinction made between the mensa and the sides.
(Notitiae 14 (1978), 301–302, n. 2)

I want to point a few things out, here.

First of all, imposing rubrics from the Extraordinary Form where the ordinary form is silent is not the mutual enrichment for which Pope Benedict XVI called. Rather, it is a practice that has been specifically rejected by the Church. Second, the instruction makes fairly clear that each item in the single comma-delimited list in GIRM 277 is to be treated the same. Third, the definition of “swing” seems to indicate double swings. Finally, although only tangentially related to the topic I want to discuss, the multiple crosses and circles made over the gifts mimicking the Extraordinary Form are not correct, and, I would argue, from the text quoted above, not allowed.

In short, according to the instructions from the Church on using incense in the Mass, it seems apparent that the Church wants to see three double-swings of the thurible for “the Most Blessed Sacrament, a relic of the Holy Cross and images of the Lord exposed for public veneration, the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass, the altar cross, the Book of the Gospels, the paschal candle, the Priest, and the people” (GIRM 277 again). I can’t find an interpretation of the instructions, as written, that implies any other conclusion; other interpretations seem to be taking their own liberties and forcing it into the text via a perceived lacuna.

The Theological Part

So, why am I making such a big deal of this? Who cares how many times the thurible is swung at anything or anyone? Why does it matter if the thurible is given three double-swings for the priest and three single-swings to the lay faithful?

Well, firstly, it’s just not what the Church is asking us to do, and I firmly believe that we, as clergy, as servants to the Liturgy, the Church, and the people, have no right to make changes to the Liturgy to suit our individual preferences, whether that change be liturgical dance or a random importation from a previous form of the Roman Rite. But the problem goes even further than that.

When a priest stands in front of the congregation (whichever way he faces), as celebrant he is acting in persona Christi capitis, in the person of Christ the Head. That’s the ordained priest’s role in the Liturgy, as it has been for nearly 2000 years, and I don’t expect to see that change any time soon. A deacon assisting at the Mass acts in persona Christi servi, in the person of Christ the Servant. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the common understanding (which I think was never the Church’s intention, it just wasn’t really discussed) was that the people were observers and passive recipients of the sacrifice offered by the priest.

Vatican II and the subsequent teaching of the Church recovered a vivid awareness that the lay faithful are meant to be active participants in the Liturgy. In fact, the Council lists four ways Christ is actively present in the Mass: the Eucharist, the Scripture, the priest, and the people. But how do we properly understand the people’s role in the liturgical celebration if the priest acts as Head, and the deacon as Servant. Can we say that, in some way, the lay faithful also act “in persona Christi” in the liturgical action of Christ, or do we need to say that they are just a “presence” of Christ in a completely different way? I would like to propose a term for the manner in which the lay faithful share in the liturgical action (I think I’m making this up, so if I’m wrong, I will trust the Church to correct me): in persona Christi corporis, in the person of Christ the Body. Throughout the history of the Church, from Scripture to the Fathers, from the Councils to the clergy to the spiritual masters, both lay and clerical, this language has been used. Remember Paul refers to the people as the “body of Christ,” and points out that no member is less the body.

But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.
1 Cor 12:20-21

So, if we accept my term, in persona Christi corporis, what does that mean for incense in the Mass? Well, it is entirely irrational to differentiate between the people and the priest while incensed. Not to differentiate between priest and lay faithful in the incensing seems to better reveal the unity of the action of the one Christ, Head and Body, in the Eucharistic celebration. To go back to Paul, “those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor” (1 Cor 12:23). If we follow Paul, here, I would argue that, if any differentiation were to be made, the priest should get the single swing and the people the double. However, I am not proposing that either.

I am pointing out that, if we are to use incense, which I love, we must revere the Body of Christ as one Body, Head and Members, instead of dissociating the two. To insist against the GIRM that the priest should be treated with more reverence than the people smacks of that kind of clericalism that distinguishes not in order to unite but in order to divide the unity of Christ. This goes back to making the difference between the baptized and ministerial priesthood a difference of quantity rather than quality. The priest is not more “in Christ” than the lay faithful. Instead, he has entered into a different role in Christ, to serve Christ’s Body in persona Christi capitis.

Neither the priest nor the people are dispensable in Christian liturgy. If we truly believe that is the case, then it becomes all the more important that they be treated as such. This same logic feeds the instruction that, whenever possible, Mass should be celebrated with at least one of the Christian faithful. The celebration of a “private Mass,” in which the priest is the only one present, is never to be considered normative. Even in such a Mass, it is the whole Christ, Head and Body, that is mystically present and active as Christ and His Church transcend the bounds of time and space. Hence, the private Mass, which lacks the visible Church’s presence as Body, is to be seen as out of the ordinary.

So, in our use of incense, do we communicate that the priest is more important than the laity in the Mass? Should not our liturgical gestures communicate rather the profound truth of the unity of priestly Head and Body in the Liturgy? I emphatically argue they should. To drive that point home, I offer a quote from one of my classes at the seminary yesterday:

Without the priest, the laity have nowhere to offer their lives.
Without the laity, the priest has nothing to offer.

This is what the Catholic faith is. This is the totus Christus, the “total Christ,” Head and Members. If the lay faithful have their honor stripped from them, then Christ’s body is stripped naked and beaten again. If the priest is treated as just a member of the lay faithful, lacking any special sacramental character, but rather is deputed to act as a mere representative of the congregation, then Christ is decapitated. It is only when both the ordained and the lay faithful are afforded the honor due them, each in their proper manner, that the Church can approach the Lord, whole and entire, to offer sacrifice — that of Christ in His Eucharistic Body and of the world consecrated to God in its entirety as an acceptable offering.


* As always, you may give yourself one point if you recognized the reference.

The Answer

This was a reference to the Nutri-Matic Drinks Dispenser in Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams, the second book (of five) in the Hitchhiker Trilogy.

[Arthur Dent] had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
-Douglas Adams

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