Throughout the liturgical year, the church’s most solemn Masses feature insightful Scripture readings and breathtaking music, along with the use of incense, a longtime Catholic tradition.

Save for a few sneezes and an occasional cough from the congregation, depending on the celebrant’s own usage, incense provides an aromatic sidebar to an already beautiful ceremony.

So what exactly is incense, loved by so many but a fragrance that also sends others scrambling for tissue? Basically, is it a granulated or powdered aromatic resin obtained from various plants. Frankincense, perhaps best known for being one of the gifts the Magi brought to the infant Jesus, is the primary component of liturgical incense.

When the resin is sprinkled on glowing coals in the censer, the incense becomes a fragrant cloud of smoke symbolizing prayer rising to God. The use of incense is found through the Bible, perhaps most poignantly in Revelation where it is written that an angel appeared, standing at an altar holding a gold censer and was given a great quantity of incense to offer.

Revelation goes on to say “the smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel” (Rev 8:4).

The first use of incense first appears around 1500 BC, found in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was around that time when Queen Hatshepsu sent a fleet of ships to what is the northern part of Somolia to acquire frankincense and myrrh tree seedlings.

Even Moses made use of incense, bringing a recipe down from Mount Sinai for sacred incense made with frankincense. In those times, frankincense would be stretching the budget, a pound selling for what would equate to $500 in today’s economy. But it was cheaper than myrrh, which sold for what would amount to $5,000 in today’s market.

Economic reasons aside, early Christians did not use incense because it was associated with pagan worship. Also, in those early days Christians worshipped in secret so the strong scent of incense could potentially compromise their location and lead to persecution or even death.

Incense did not become a part of Christian celebrations until sometime around the fifth century, according to scholars.

As first indicated in Revelations, the rising smoke indicates the rising of prayers offered by the congregation, as well as sanctification and purification.

When used during Mass, incense is intended to remind Catholics of heaven and that worshipping God in liturgy is divine in origin. It is also a call to prayer.