Why do we not incense the Missal?


When the altar is incensed during Mass, the Missal is temporarily removed. Anything else on the altar is incensed including altar cards, microphone, the priest’s spectacles and the deacon’s copy of the weekly Mass sheet, but never the Missal. We incense the Book of the Gospels or the Lectionary, but the only occasion on which the Missal is incensed is at the Solemn Entrance on Maundy Thursday before the Gospel is proclaimed from it.

Our ritual practices have a liturgical significance although many originally came about for purely practical reasons. The incense is blessed and its smoke conveys the blessing to the altar, the priest and the congregation: the rising smoke signifies our prayer rising to heaven. It’s original use was to keep everything smelling sweet and to keep the flies away during animal sacrifices in the temple. However I’m at a complete loss to understand why an altar server has to hold the missal while the altar is incensed. It cannot be because the smoke might damage the paper or we wouldn’t incense the Gospel.


Christ is present during Holy Mass in four ways: physically through the Blessed Sacrament, spiritually because “wherever two or three are gathered in [His] name, [He] is there”, authoritatively in the celebrant because he acts in persona Christi through his Holy Orders, and fourthly in word because he is directly quoted, most particularly in the Gospel reading which directly recalls His words and actions through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

So the Gospel book, or evangelarium, has a peculiar holiness to it: not as great as the Blessed Sacrament, which actually is Christ Himself – but comparable to the bishop/priest, and the spirit of the congregation. And so four things at Holy Mass are incensed, because they are the holiest things there: most importantly the Host and altar, and also the celebrant(s), the congregation, and the evangelarium.

By contrast, the Missal, while indeed a sacred object because it is set apart for worship of God, is not as holy as the above four mentioned things. It contains prayers, rubrics and music written by men (albeit saints), which call to mind Our Lord, but is not one of the gits of Our Lord himself – rather of His Church.

Of course, this can be a bit confusing because before Vatican II, all of the Lectionary readings were in the Roman Missal itself, so it doubled as the evangelarium. I think the physical separation of the books is one of the fruits of Vatican II (although technically speaking, the Lectionary is still part of the Missal).


You were probably on the right track. In the EF, the Gospel is contained in the Missal.


It is the altar that is being incensed, not the priest’s spectacles, microphone and everything else.




It is, of course, true that the Missal contained the readings, but in fact “physical separation of the books” had nothing to do with that Council or with the Novus Ordo. There was a separate Evangelarium and Epistolarium long long before that time. They’re still seen in the Usus Antiquior, particularly at Solemn Mass.


Quite. But we go to great lengths to remove the missal. Everything else remains on the altar. Where altar cards are used, these remain on the altar - I learned that in pre-Vatican II days. The altar is the throne of God, not a convenient table for the clergy’s possessions, but it’s only the missal that is removed during incensing.


I have never seen an explanation for this. I have speculated that it is a hangover from the time when books were of great value. One wanted to avoid the chance of an ember from escaping the censor and damaging the book. [Again, pure speculation on my part.]


Your explanation works for me. As I recall from my 1950’s and early '60’s altar boy days, the altar cards were heavily laminated / varnished onto gilded wooden backers, so no chance of a stray ember damaging those.


I was always taught that the altar is symbolic of Christ. Hence, the priests and deacons kiss it and incense it.

Christ is Priest, Victim and Altar of sacrifice. In the words of Preface V of Easter:
By the oblation of his Body
he brought the sacrifices of old to fulfilment
in the reality of the Cross
and, by commending himself to you for our salvation,
showed himself the Priest, the Altar and the Lamb of sacrifice.


That reminds me of the time before our church was restored/remodeled and there was carpet on the sanctuary floor. We had a few burned spots from embers that had managed to escape the thurible. But I am also wondering if the removal of the Book which also contains the Gospels has something to do with allowing each place where Christ is present to be incensed separately- the altar, the priest/priests, The Book of Gospels, and the body of Christ, the Church, in the community of people.


I have a feeling that the practice goes back to the earliest liturgy where the prayers would be written on a parchment scroll, and possibly to Jewish temple worship. I’d be interested to know if the Oriental Rites have the same practice.


I’m not sure why there is a question about moving the Missal before incensing the altar in the Usus Antiquior. Whether it contains the Gospel reading is immaterial: the incensation of the altar is the incensation of the altar. The Gospel, whether from the Missal itself or from the Evangelarion, was censed at the appropriate time.


Curiosity, that’s all.


The number of swings and the precise location of each swing were precisely regulated in the EF. The point was to cense each section of the top of the altar, as well as the sides and front. Moving the missal made it possible to carry out the swings and cense each section. This diagram appeared in every altar missal.


Yes, that pattern makes for a very pleasing and elegant incensing if done at a stately pace.


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