I remember when I first started re-discovering my love for the Catholic faith, I attended Mass at a beautiful church (Saint Brigid in Johns Creek, GA) that had the tabernacle and crucifix displayed prominently up front. The church I had been attending did not have this, so when I walked into this church, it moved me profoundly and brought me to tears.
I love the tabernacle not stuck in a corner. I love that Catholic churches have the altar front and center, and not a pulpit. I love to watch the priests and deacon kiss the altar when they enter and leave Mass. I love the bells, the candles, the incense, the statues of Mary, Joseph and the saints, the oils, the vestments, the stained glass windows . . . all of it. I love that during the consecration (in many churches) you hear these beautiful bells ringing, which call your attention to the miracle that is taking place upon the altar. These bells help to connect us in a deep and mysterious way to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
I love the crucifix. You will come across some people who express distaste at the thought of depicting Jesus at His most vulnerable. Guess what? This should make you uncomfortable. Jesus does not want us to look at His Crucifixion as only a past event. Every lash that he took, every blow that drove the nail into his hands was caused by you and me. OUR sins (present, past and future) hung Jesus on that cross. The crucifix is the ultimate expression of the lengths that a loving God will go to reach us. Gazing at a crucifix is a humbling experience.
When we see incense being used in our churches, it is meant to remind us of heaven, and that our worship of God in the Christian liturgy is divine in origin. It also reminds us to pray, and that our prayer rises to God like the smoke from the censer, purifying our worship of God, and allowing his Holy Spirit to work in us to make us holy.
These little traditions and sacramentals all mean something, and make the Mass all the more meaningful and beautiful. They help us with all of our human failings and distractions to understand what is really going on at Mass, and to focus on Christ. Are they necessary for the validity of the sacrament? No. But can they help one to truly appreciate and recognize the beauty of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and come to a deeper understanding of why we are there? Yes.
In an era where a tragically large number of Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, or even attend Mass every Sunday, these sacramentals can help one focus on the miracle that takes place upon the altar. I love all of our beautiful traditions which are a very powerful devotional aid during Mass, and a rich sacramental tradition of the Church.