How to Incense the Altar

123. The Priest goes up to the altar and venerates it with a kiss. Then, if appropriate, he incenses the cross and the altar, walking around the latter.

That’s the extent of the directions the General Instruction of the Roman Missal gives on how to incense the altar in the Novus Ordo. My suspicion is that when these instructions were written, it was taken for granted that priests would do things “the way they had always been done”. The tendency of the time was to get away from detailed prescriptions, diagrams, and the like. There was a reaction against “legalism”.

Over the years, however, the knowledge of how things have always been done in the Roman Rite has been lost in many places — especially in many seminaries. How to incense the altar? “I guess I just walk around it swinging the thurible in some sort of meaningful way”, could be the answer. I’ve seen some general tendencies, but a lot of variation as well, in this regard.

Again, following upon my last post, the consistency with which we celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, according to the mind of the Church, assures its catholicity.

I keep coming back to the directive of the General Instruction about following the traditional practices of the Roman Rite, also:

42. The gestures and bodily posture of both the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers, and also of the people, must be conducive to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, to making clear the true and full meaning of its different parts, and to fostering the participation of all. Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. [emphasis added]

Well, one might think, weren’t all altars attached to the wall in the past? You couldn’t walk all the way around them, as is often the case now. But that is not so, either. There were many places where detached altars were used — especially in Rome. And so there were instructions on how to incense them when they could be walked around, as well. Here is a traditional diagram from an old Missal:

What this diagram shows is a total of 22 swings of the thurible, after the cross has been incensed (whenever an altar has a cross sitting on it between the priest and the people). Six of the swings are done above the mensa of the altar; the other 16 are done below the mensa of the altar. So, the sequence of things would be as follows:

  1. Charge the thurible with incense, blessing it.
  2. Standing at the center of the altar (facing the people), bow to the cross, and do three sets of double swings toward it. Bow again.
  3. Then start going counter-clockwise around the altar, that is, to the right.
  4. Along the back-right side (swings 1-3 in the diagram), do three single swings above the surface of the altar.
  5. As you go around the back-right corner towards the front (swings 4-5 in the diagram), do two single swings below the surface of the altar.
  6. As you go around the front-right corner, now on the front side of the altar (swings 6-11 in the diagram), do six single swings below the surface of the altar.
  7. Now you are going around the front-left corner, starting to walk toward the back of the altar again. Do two single swings on the left side (swings 12-13 in the diagram).
  8. Now you pause at the back-left corner and you will do three swings in place over the top of the altar (swings 14-16 in the diagram). If you didn’t pause and do these swings in place, you’d have to walk back like a typewriter to do swings 17-19. So you do three swings above the surface while pausing briefly, then you move to the next step.
  9. Now, coming around the back-left corner, you do six swings below the surface of the altar (swings 17-22 in the diagram), ending up at the back-right corner.

The easiest way to learn it is to do dry runs. For those who have learned to celebrate in the Extraordinary Form, it perhaps makes more sense. (Indeed, when celebrating on a altar attached to a reredos, the same number of swings is used, although the number of “aboves” and “belows” is a little different.)

A few things are helpful to work out in one’s mind: the short sides of the altar get two swings, the long sides gets six (or two sets of three). So everything is in multiples of twos and threes. I also think that most are used to stopping in the center (e.g., where they started), whereas in the older form one always ended at the side (known as the Epistle Side). If the altar has not only a crucifix but also six candlesticks on it, it’s easier to visualize the numbering system also.

A question arises: why 22 swings (not counting the incensing of the cross)? I consulted several books but found no answer. The answer is very likely: “Because that’s the way we do it”. I also enjoyed this answer from the great Adrian Fortescue, in his book, The Mass, page 230:

The exceedingly definite rule by which we now conduct the incensing, illustrated by a picture in the missal, the exact determination of where and how often to swing the thurible is part of the final crystallization of rubrics in the reformed Missal (Pius V and Clement VIII). In the middle ages this (as many other details) was much vaguer. We need not regret the minute exactness. Such increased definiteness was bound to come and, after all, you must incense an altar somehow; it does not hurt to be told how to do so.

Do we have to incense the altar according to this traditional manner? In the celebration of the Ordinary Form (the Novus Ordo), the answer is clearly no: the law is vague, even in its appeal to Roman Tradition. But if we are going to celebrate the liturgy in continuity with our ancestors and in an orderly and consistent way, I think that following the traditional practice is wise. It is also another example of the “mutual enrichment” that Pope Benedict XVI taught as being possible between the two forms of the Mass.

UPDATE: It should be clear that I have taken for granted that the priest is celebrating Mass “facing the people” (versus or contra populum). Obviously, if the priest is celebrating ad orientem these directions can be adapted easily for that circumstance. Also, my understanding has been that when celebrating ad orientem, even if going all the way around the altar is comfortably possibly, it is not required. In other words, the traditional incensation of only the front and sides may be done, which, as I said above, has the same number of swings but a different division of the “aboves” and “belows” and a few other details that are different.

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