Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

To Catholics, incense is prayer in action.

“It makes you more mindful of what’s going on,” said Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul sacrisant Mark Labonte as he swung an incense censer back and forth, filling the sacristy with rose-scented smoke. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, “Not only does the smoke symbolize the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven, incense actually creates the ambiance of heaven.”

The ceremonial significance of incense has been noted as far back as the ancient Egyptians, who used it for both pragmatic and mystical purposes. Ancient temples, filled shoulder-to-shoulder with worshipers, smelled putrid. Cedars, berries, roots and resins were burned to obscure malodorous aromas before the regular use of soaps and deodorants came into vogue. On Egyptian tablets, kings are often shown swinging censers; the fragrant scents were believed to banish demons and appease the gods.

Archaeologists have uncovered incense burners in the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 BCE to 1300 BCE) and in ancient China (around 2000 BCE). The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century BCE, testified to the use of incense among the Assyrians and Babylonians. It was widely burned throughout Greece and Rome, and classical writers like Virgil mention the use of incense during prayers. In his famous work “Metamorphoses,” Ovid wrote, “The goddess expects offerings of incense on her altar in thanksgiving for her service.”

References to incense in the New Testament suggest its use in early Christian worship. God commanded Moses to make an “altar of incense” for worship on which the “sweetest spices and gums were burned.” (Exodus 30:1-10) 

In Catholic liturgy, according to the Vatican’s website, “everything symbolizes a theological truth” and incense has been used in Christian liturgy from its earliest centuries. 

In modern times, according to Labonte, the use of incense is dependent on the kind of Mass being said. “At funeral Masses, it may be used at the beginning and end and will vary from priest to priest,” he said. Altar servers and priests swing censers, sending clouds of incense wafting through the air. 

At the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass at the basilica, incense is used six times: during the opening procession; to incense the altar; at the reading of the Gospel; at the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist; once in front of the congregation; and finally during the liturgy of the Eucharist, “when an altar server . . . facing the altar will incense separately the elevation of the Body of Christ and then the Blood of Christ.”

Typical fragrances used at the basilica include balsam and rose. Incense can be made from a number of aromatic products, including frankincense and myrrh. 

Frankincense, perhaps the most historically famous scent, was known for its religious as well as medicinal properties in the ancient world. It was used as an antiseptic to cure everything from dental disease and skin conditions to respiratory and digestive troubles throughout the Arabian countries where it was grown.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

The Sun Journal is celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, which was completed in 1936. For a year, we are taking a close look at the iconic structure, its history and even some of the people who built it. We will explore rooms behind the high altar, crawl along the catwalk, explore the cellars and rooftop carvings, and peek into drawers and cabinets in the sacristy. We’ll show you historical photos and compare them with current images of the basilica. We’ll also speak with basilica experts and comb through historical documents to uncover some of the 80-year-old church’s enduring myths and mysteries.

The entire series is being archived at sunjournal.com/basilica.

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