A thurible is a metal censer suspended from chains, in which incense is burned during worship services. It is used in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopal, Old Catholic, and some Lutheran churches, as well as in Christian and non-Christian Gnostic Churches and in the practice of magick. In Catholic, Episcopal, and Anglican churches, the altar server who carries the thurible is called the thurifer.

The workings of a thurible are quite simple. Burning charcoal is inside the metal censer. Incense, sometimes of many different varieties, is placed upon the charcoal. This may be done several times during the service as the incense burns quite quickly. Once the incense has been placed on the charcoal the thurible is then closed and used for censing.

The word "thurible" comes from the Old French thurible, which in turn is derived from the Latin term "thuribulum". The Latin word thuribulum has the root "thur", meaning incense. The Latin "thur"is an alteration of the Greek word "thuos", which is derived from the term "thuein", meaning to sacrifice.

Roman Catholic use

In the Ordinary Form of the Roman Missal

In the revised Roman Missal incense is optional during the various liturgical celebrations and at any Mass, thus, in the entrance procession, at the Gospel, at the Preparation of the Gifts, at the elevation of the Sacred Host and Chalice, and in the Recessional.

After the altar has been censed at the Preparation of the Gifts, the priest celebrant may be censed, followed by concelebrants and other ministers of the altar, followed by the lay faithful.

Despite the wider use of incense provided for in the revised Roman Missal at Mass, incense is sometimes not used as frequently in parochial settings as before the liturgical revisions of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.

The responsibilities of a thurifer include:

  • Holding the thurible while the priest is blessing the incense inside it.
  • Carrying the thurible in procession (gently swinging if needed to keep the charcoal burning).
  • Presenting the thurible to the priest or deacon at different times in the ceremony, (at the Gospel readings and before the Eucharist at Mass)
  • At Mass, if no deacon is present, the server censes the priest after the priest censes the gifts.

A thurifer may be helped by another server carrying a boat or container for fresh incense to add as the thurible burns low. Such a server is commonly called a boat boy.

A famous thurible is the huge Botafumeiro in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Spain.

The manner in which the rite of censing is carried out:

Traditionally and at Papal liturgies-

  • Three sets of triple swings: When censing the Most Blessed Sacrament
  • Three sets of double swings: When censing images, relics, and other sacramentals, also when censing the celebrant, other clergy and the congregation
  • Continuous single swings: When censing around the altar

In the present (USCCB, 2003) General Instruction of the Roman Missal (No. 277)-

"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 ..."

"The altar is incensed with single swings of the thurible ..."

The GIRM does not specify if swings are single, double, or triple; presumably, they are double or triple (high, high, low).

In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Missal

The use of the thurible in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is dictated by the liturgical legislation in force in 1962 and this is found in the appropriate liturgical texts of that period.

The use of the thurible in the Extraordinary Form, therefore, is not affected by subsequent liturgical legislation, including legislation (e.g., the General Instruction of the Roman Missal) regarding the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite (a reform of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council).

Consequently, while the use of the thurible bears many similarities to its use in the Ordinary Form there remain significant differences, for example, regarding the incensation of the altar, and these are contained in the rubrics of the legislation regulating the Extraordinary Form.

Thuribles in Anglicanism

In the Anglican Communion, the use of incense is a fairly reliable guide to how 'high' (more Catholic in liturgical style) or how 'low' (more Protestant) a church is. Anglo-Catholic churches may use generous quantities of incense. In recent years, some middle-of-the-road Anglican churches have taken to using incense a few times a year for special occasions.

Traditionally, at High Mass, the following rule is observed when censing, which differs from the common Roman Rite:

  • Three sets of triple swings: When censing the Most Blessed Sacrament
  • Three sets of double swings: When censing images, relics, and other sacramentals, also when censing the celebrant.
  • Two sets of double swings: When censing a Deacon.
  • One set of double swings: When censing a Sub-Deacon.
  • Three sets of single swings: When censing the congregation

In Anglo-Catholic churches, the Thurible is carried in procession in front of the Crucifer and Acolytes. The Celebrant then censes the altar on which the Eucharist is to be offered, in the following form (at a Nave Altar):

  • After venerating the altar, the Priest receives the thurible from the server at the North end of the altar.
  • The Priest circles the altar, making small movements in the thurible, in an anti-clockwise direction until s/he reaches the west side of the altar, facing east.
  • The Priest then makes three sets of triple swings towards east, then continues around the altar to his/her original position facing west.

This same pattern is followed when censing the altar at the offertory, with the following prequel:

  • The Priest makes 6 swings (3+3) over the gifts, making the sign of the cross.
  • The Priest then makes 3 circles, two counter-clockwise and one clockwise, over and around the gifts.

At the Gospel, the deacon (or whoever is reading the Gospel) censes following the introduction to the Gospel (ie: Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to n... then cense)using three sets of double swings, one set South, one set North, and one set west.

At the elevations of the Blessed Sacrament, during the prayer of consecration, either the deacon, sub-deacon, or other appropriate person (including the thurifer), makes three sets of triple swings, as the parish bell and sanctuary bells are rung.

Should the Regina Coeli (during Easter) or the Angelus be said or sung, then the celebrant or other appropriate person may cense the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the following form:

  • Regina Coeli: Three sets of triple swings during the verse (Joy to thee, O Queen of Heaven, Alleluia...) and then three sets of triple swings during the concluding prayer.
  • Angelus: One set of triple swings during each 'Ave Maria', then three sets of triple swings during the prayer; 'Pour forth, we beseech thee, thy grace into our hearts...)

Incense can be used at any celebration of the eucharist throughout the year, but especially in the seasons of Christmas, Epiphany and Easter, Maundy Thursday vigil, Palm Sunday, on the feasts of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Ascension, Feasts of saints and martyrs, Corpus Christi, and at the Dedication Festival or Patronal Festival of a church.



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