By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 09 December 2014 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: When incensing the altar at the beginning of Mass, should the Advent wreath also be incensed in the same way as the paschal candle during the Easter season? What about a Nativity scene (during the Christmas season)? — T.D., Leuven, Belgium
A: The rules regarding incensing are mostly found in the missal and the Ceremonial of Bishops. The introduction to the missal says:
"276. Thurification or incensation is an expression of reverence and of prayer, as is signified in Sacred Scripture (cf. Ps 140 :2, Rev 8:3).
"Incense may be used if desired in any form of Mass:
"a. during the Entrance procession;
"b. at the beginning of Mass, to incense the cross and the altar;
"c. at the Gospel procession and the proclamation of the Gospel itself;
"d. after the bread and the chalice have been placed upon the altar, to incense the offerings, the cross, and the altar, as well as the priest and the people;
"e. at the showing of the host and the chalice after the consecration.
"277. The priest, having put incense into the thurible, blesses it with the Sign of the Cross, without saying anything.
"Before and after an incensation, a profound bow is made to the person or object that is incensed, except for the incensation of the altar and the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass.
"The following are incensed with three swings of the thurible: 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 following are incensed with two swings of the thurible: relics and images of the Saints exposed for public veneration, which should be done, however, only at the beginning of the celebration, after the incensation of the altar.
"The altar is incensed with single swings of the thurible in this way:
"a. if the altar is freestanding with respect to the wall, the priest incenses walking around it;
"b. if the altar is not freestanding, the priest incenses it while walking first to the right hand side, then to the left.
"The cross, if situated on or near the altar, is incensed by the priest before he incenses the altar; otherwise, he incenses it when he passes in front of it.
"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."
Although there is a rite of blessing for the Advent wreath in the American Book of Blessings, there is no mention of incensing the wreath. This blessing is proper to the United States and is absent from the official Book of Blessings in countries such as Italy.
It must, therefore, be concluded that the Advent wreath is not incensed in the manner of the paschal candle. It is neither a relic nor an image and is more an expression of popular piety than a liturgical object per se.
The paschal candle receives special veneration because it is a traditional and ancient symbol of the risen Christ. One could argue that, in a way the wreath is a symbol of the coming Christ, but we would still be before a relatively recent custom and one which is not present in the universal Church. Its not being incensed does not lessen in any way the usefulness of the wreath in fostering a spiritual preparation for Christmas.
A Nativity scene, or at least an image of the Child Jesus, set up in the sanctuary could enter into the category of "images of the Saints exposed for public veneration," mentioned above in No. 277 and hence be incensed.
It should be remembered however, that several Church guidelines advise against setting up the Nativity in the sanctuary itself, and above all it should never be an obstacle to the dignified celebration of the liturgical celebrations. For example, the U.S. bishops' conference says in the document "Built of Living Stones":
"§ 124 § Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths and fabric hangings, and other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear."
If, as is common in many churches, the Nativity scene is outside the sanctuary area, there is no need to leave the sanctuary to incense it.