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Ask Father: Incense, High Mass, and Christmas

Ask Father: Why is incense used at some Masses? Has the term “High Mass” been retired? Why are there High Masses and regular Masses? What is the meaning of the movement of the thurible, back and forth, circular, etc?


Also, this is not a question but a request for explanation. I have attended many Christmas Masses but this year I noticed that while we celebrate the birth of Christ, we still call to mind his death and resurrection. I know there cannot be a Mass without the Eucharist, but it seems to be a dichotomy (birth/death) at the Christmas Mass.


Dear friend in Christ,


Alright, lots to get to here.


‘High Mass’ refers to the more solemn and ceremonial of the two types of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, also known as the Tridentine Mass or the traditional Latin Mass. This beautiful and ancient celebration of the Eucharist is offered locally at Saint Patrick Parish and Oratory in Waterbury.


The Ordinary Form of the Mass, or the Novus Ordo, is the more commonly celebrated form of the Mass since the Second Vatican Council. It is the rite which is celebrated in our parish, the Mass with which we are all familiar.


There are not two different Masses, there is one Mass celebrated under two different Rites or Forms.


Within the Ordinary Form, there are different degrees of solemnity marked by different liturgical rituals. Of course, one would expect a Mass on Christmas or Easter to look and feel different from a daily Mass on a Tuesday in Ordinary Time. Incense is one of these differences.


Incense represents our prayers rising up to God. It is used at the start of Mass and when the altar is being prepared. (It is also used around the casket during a Funeral Mass.) The thurible (the golden metal vessel which contains the charcoals and releases the aromatic smoke) is swung in threes to signify the Trinity.


For the second part of your question, recall that Jesus is the only human being who ever lived who was born specifically to die. Everyone else was born to live. Jesus was born to die, to offer His life for the salvation of the world. His birth and His death cannot be separated because they are the beginning and the end of one complete action of self-sacrifice. It is thus fitting at every Mass to recall both His birth and His death.

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