Anyone who walks into an Orthodox church cannot remain unmoved by what they encounter. All their senses will be heightened as they take in the iconography, the sound of chanting, the lighting of candles and oil lamps, the taste of the Bread and Wine and the sweet smell of incense filling their being.
The use of incense is traced back to the Old Testament when God commanded Moses to make an altar and burn incense upon it (Ex 30). Incense is made up of a mixture of spices, oils, resin and gum from particular trees. In essence, it is an offering of earth’s treasures back to their Creator.
Incense was one of the gifts offered by the Magi at Christ’s birth, a symbol of His Priesthood, in the same way that gold was a symbol of His Kingdom and myrrh a symbol of His sufferings. In the New Testament (Rev 8:3), Christ is likened to the burning ember, and as the charcoal burns so should our hearts be aflame with prayer.
Incense use in worship today symbolizes our prayers rising heavenward to God: “Let my prayer be set forth before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps 14:2), as chanted at the vespers service.
Everybody and everything is being censed during the service to emphasise the essential unity of those in heaven and on earth, as well as our participation in heavenly things during services.
The priest censes the Holy Altar, relics, the icons, and the faithful. He censes the artoclasia and the kolliva (and the departed) so that God may receive the prayers and petitions offered up for their souls.
When being blessed by the priest with incense, a person simply bows their head and acknowledges that we are living icons as we are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27). Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and we too are called to be Saints.
At home (the family church) we should cense daily. First the icon corner, each family member, each room, making the sign of the cross with the incense burner over the children’s icons, beds, study tables, saying a special prayer for the wellbeing and enlightenment of that family member. The ashes and charcoal used should be gathered together and discarded in an appropriate place or buried.
May God make our prayers acceptable. Amen!
Source: February-March 2015 Lychnos