In ancient times the kiss as a sign of greeting was used to show reverence for temples and images of the gods. It seems that the table was likewise honoured before the family meal in places where every meal was considered sacred; where the participants in the meal were seen as either hosts or guests of the household gods. By the fourth century Christian worship appropriated this sign of honour since the altar was the “table of the Lord.” As the altar came to be constructed of stone, it was looked upon as the symbol of Christ, the cornerstone and spiritual rock of the Church. With the growth of the cult of martyrs, relics were placed beneath, and the kiss was seen as greeting the saints and through them the whole Church triumphant. Until the thirteenth century the altar was kissed only three times during the Mass: the beginning, during the Eucharistic prayer, and before the dismissal. A century later this sign so multiplied that the importance of the original kiss at the beginning and end of the celebration was obscured. Today the altar is venerated with a kiss only at the beginning and end of Mass.
The use of incense at worship is of great antiquity. In pre-Christian times it had numerous meanings: a symbol of sacrifice, a festive accompaniment for processions, a sign of honour, a means of purification and of expelling evil spirits. Christians first rejected the use of incense since it was closely associated with pagan cult. But after the time of Constantine (280-337) various dignities accorded to major Roman officials were transferred to the pope and bishops. Thus it became customary to bear incense before the emperor.
A formal incensation of the altar in the Roman Missal, however, is only attested in the eleventh century. Scholars suggest that the original meaning of the practice was purification and protection. Furthermore, there was also the Old Testament injunction that the service of the high priest was to begin with incense (cf. Leviticus 16: 12). At any rate, this incensation was generally interpreted as a sign of the altar being en-wrapped in an atmosphere of prayer and sacrifice ascending to God.
General Instruction of the Roman Missal ( The Church’s Textbook)
27. When the priest and ministers come to the sanctuary, they greet the altar. As a sign of veneration, the priest and ordained ministers kiss the altar; the priest may also incense it.
84. At the altar the priest and ministers make a low bow. If there is a tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament, they genuflect.
If the cross has been carried in the procession, it is placed near the altar or wherever is suitable; the candles carried by the ministers are placed near the altar or on the side table; and the gospel book is placed on the altar.
If there is a cross on the altar or near it, the priest incenses it when he passes in front of it. You may notice this during the funeral mass.
The altar “is by its very nature a table of sacrifice and at the same time a table of the paschal banquet” (Dedication of a Church and an Altar), Chapter IV, no. 4). It is the symbol of Christ as well as of the whole Christian community since “Christians who give themselves to prayer, who offer petitions to God and present sacrifices of supplication, are living stones from which the Lord Jesus builds the Church’s altar. The veneration of the altar at the beginning of the celebration is an act of greeting which recalls that the common table is holy and sacred to the action of the assembly. It is the place from which prayer ascends like an incense before God. (Ps. 141:2)
Questions for Reflection:
1. What is the purpose of kissing and incensing the altar?
2. When I come into the Church how do I reverence the altar?Scripture: Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight…. (1Peter 2: 4)