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Swings of the Thurible

A Review of the Variations

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

 Q: I am a Catholic priest belonging to an Oriental Church, Syro-Malankara. I would like to know about the significance of the different number of swings of the thurible in the Roman Eucharistic liturgy. Is there any meaning about this grading? — L.K., Leuven, Belgium.

 A: in our present reply we shall use some previously published material from 12 years ago. Most indications regarding how to incense are contained in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and in the Ceremonial of Bishops. The GIRM specifies:

 “276. Thurification or incensation is an expression of reverence and of prayer, as is signified in Sacred Scripture (cf. Ps 141 [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 [“Ductus,” or three double swings, as explained below]: 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. This should be done, however, only at the beginning of the celebration, after the incensation of the altar.

 “The altar is incensed with single swings [ictus] 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, then going on to incense the cross and the altar.”

 To these general indications for Mass, the Ceremonial of Bishops (Nos. 84-98) adds further details. Incense is used:

 — for the rite of the dedication of a church or altar.

 — in the rite of blessing of oils and consecrating the chrism as the blessed oils and consecrated chrism are being taken away.

 — at exposition of the Blessed Sacrament when the monstrance is used.

 — at funerals.

 — during solemn processions such as the feast of the Presentation, Palm Sunday, and Corpus Christi.

 — during the singing of the Gospel canticle at solemn Morning or Evening Prayers.

 The new missal clarifies the norm of the ceremonial, noting that only the bishop may put incense into the thurible while seated and that the Blessed Sacrament is incensed from a kneeling position.

 All those who receive the incensation do so from a standing position. Concelebrants are incensed as a body followed by the people. Bishops and canons who are not concelebrating are incensed along with the people. But in those cases where a bishop presides but does not concelebrate, he is incensed after the concelebrants.

 Where customary, a head of state in official attendance at a liturgical celebration is incensed after the bishop.

 The celebrant should not begin any prayer or commentary until after the incensation has been completed. During the Divine Office, the antiphon for Benedictus or Magnificat should not be repeated until the completion of the incensation.

 It adds several footnotes taken from the 1886 edition of the ceremonial regarding the manner of approaching the bishop, recommending placing three spoonfuls of incense into the thurible, and describing the manner of holding the thurible. For example, footnote 75 states:

 “The one incensing holds the top of the censer chain in the left hand, the bottom near the censer in the right hand, so that the censer can be swung back and forth easily. The one incensing should take care to carry out this function with grave and graceful mien, not moving head or body while swinging the censer, holding the left hand with the top of the chains near the chest and moving the right arm back and forth with a measured beat.”

 To these official documents we may add the indications offered by Monsignor Peter Elliott in his excellent ceremonies book:

 “216. The grace and skill of using the thurible depends first of all on how the chains are held when incensing a person or thing. Each person should work out what is most convenient by practice, but an easy method may be proposed. (a) Take the disc and the upper part of the chains in the left hand, letting it rest against the breast. With the right hand, let the chains pass between the index and middle finger. Secure them by the thumb, so that the swinging bowl of the thurible may be directed and controlled easily. (b) With the right hand, bring the bowl in front of the breast. Then raise the right hand to eye level (lower when censing an altar) and move the bowl backward and forwards towards the person or object, swinging it steadily and smoothly without haste by manipulating the chain. (c) Having completed the required number of swings, lower the bowl once more. Then bring it to your side or return it to the thurifer or deacon.

 “217. There are two kinds of swing or ‘ductus.’ To make a double swing, the thurible is swung twice at the person or object to be incensed and then lowered. To make a single swing, it is swung once and then lowered, except when incensing the altar, when these single swings are made continuously as the celebrant walks around it.

 “218. The customary rules governing these different forms of incensation are as follow: (a) three double swings are made to incense the Blessed Sacrament, a relic of the Cross, images of Our Lord set up for veneration, the gifts on the altar, the altar cross, the Book of the Gospels, the Easter candle, the celebrant (bishop or priest), a representative of the civil authority officially present at a celebration, the choir, the people and the body of a deceased person; (b) two double swings are made to incense relics or images of Our Lady and the saints set up for veneration. The altar is incensed by single swings. In procession, the thurifer swings the thurible at full length from his right hand. In his left hand, he carries the boat against his breast, but his left hand rests flat on the breast if there is a boat bearer.

 “219. It is not necessary to let the bowl strike the chains. When incensing a person or the gifts on the altar, the chains should be held about 20 cm. (8 inches) from the bowl; about 30 cm. (12 inches) when incensing the altar and cross. Before and after an incensation, a profound bow is made to the person who is being incensed. While bowing before and after incensing a person, the thurifer lets go of the thurible with the right hand, which is placed on the breast.

 “220. In placing incense in the thurible, the amount used ought to be governed by such factors as the size of the church. However, the sign of incense rising is achieved only if the grain or powder is evenly arranged on burning coals. Striking or breaking the coals with the spoon does nothing but dislodge the grains and swinging a thurible which does not produce smoke is ridiculous.”

 The norms before the council, and still applicable when using the extraordinary form, were similar but more detailed and with some complex distinctions.

 Although the official documents cited above do not specifically mandate the “double swing,” mentioned by Monsignor Elliott it does describe the mode of incensing which is practically universal custom, in which each “ductus” consists of two “ictus,” or swings. Hence the thurible is raised, swung twice toward the object or person incensed, and then lowered.

 For example, the following description of the double swing is found in the Fortescue-O’Connell pre-Vatican II ceremonies book: “The double swing (‘ductus duplex’) is made by raising the thurible to the level of the face, then swinging it out towards the object or person to be incensed, repeating this outward swing, and then lowering the thurible.” This description of the ductus, or double swing, is based on decrees issued by the Congregation of rites in 1862 and 1899 (Decrees 3110 and 4048).

 The difficulty arises because the present liturgical books do not distinguish between the simple swing and double swing during the “ductus,” but only the number of “ductus” in each circumstance or how many times the thurible is raised and lowered for swinging.

 Previous legislation, however, did make this distinction and prescribed the double swing for practically the same persons and objects as the present legislation. There is no reason to suppose that the practice has been abrogated.

 Likewise, as authentic custom is also a source of law, the use of the double swing as described by Monsignor Elliott is used practically everywhere — including at the Masses of the Supreme Pontiff.

 However, although it is useful to recall the law, our correspondent’s question refers more to any meaning attached to the numbers of swings. There is one obvious meaning insofar as a greater number of swings would indicate a higher dignity, but I would not belabor this point as the same number of swings does not imply equality. Otherwise, we would put the Eucharist on the same level as the celebrant and this is clearly not the case.

 Historically the use of incense entered Latin Catholic liturgy in different ways and for different purposes.

 The earliest appearances of incense in a church in Rome hails from the fourth century, and the use was above all to fill the space with pleasant aroma in a fashion that was also used in Roman homes.

 A second mode was through the use of incense for funeral rites. There is already a mention of this in Tertullian (A.D. 160-220), and there is quite a body of evidence of its use for this purpose in early Christianity. This practice was later extended to the relics and tombs of martyrs and the dedication of churches.

 The earliest liturgical use of incense in the Roman liturgy during the seventh and eighth centuries was a gesture of honor offered to the Pope and the Book of the Gospels. This might have been inspired by the Roman practice of using incense for magistrates and the book of Statutes.

 The incensation of the altar clergy and gifts were introduced in the ninth century, probably through the influence of the so-called Gallican liturgy in use in France and Germany which was itself subject to Eastern Influence. By about the year 1350 the rubrics regarding the manner of incensing were fairly well established. The more-detailed protocols and the standardization of practice is, however, largely the product of much later ages.

 Because of this, the number of swings prescribed would appear to respond to the need to establish a certain unity of practice according to a certain protocol of honor and is not endowed with symbolic meanings.

 Overall, although incense honors a sacred person or object, it is first and foremost a demonstration of reverence and homage toward God in which the ascending aromatic smoke represents the prayers of the Church rising to God’s throne. In this way, the overall meaning is like that used in the Eastern liturgies.

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 Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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