The offering of incense has long been part of the worship of God since the Lord commanded Moses to burn incense to Him in the Tabernacle on Mount Sinai.
“When Aaron lights the lamps in the evening, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” – Exodus 30: 8
A half-century before the coming of Christ, Malachi gives “a remarkable and clear prophecy that the Gentiles, in their worship of God, in every place or church will burn incense before Him – as Israel had done.” (1)
“’For from the rising of the sun even to its going down, My name has been glorified among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering, for my name shall be great among the Gentiles,’ says the Lord almighty.” – Malachi 1: 11
Continuing even to this day, incense is offered in nearly every service of the Orthodox Church through the use of a metal censer. The rising smoke, the sweet aroma of incense, and the sound of the bells on the censer mix with the sound of the chanting and the visual scene of icons in worship. With our senses are fully engaged, and our mind and heart are elevated towards God.
The incense spreading throughout the church symbolizes the prayers of the faithful sent up to God and at the same time it is a symbol the Holy Spirit mysteriously embracing them.
It is also a reminder of the frankincense given to Christ by the Three Wise Men and of the sweet smelling myrrh which was prepared to anoint Christ at His burial.
The metal censer is also filed with symbolism, with the bottom bowl representing the universe, of which earth is a part. The top bowl represents the heavens. The twelve bells represent the voice of the twelve apostles and their teachings.
The fire pot is earth and the charcoal is man who requires the fire of the Holy Spirit to give him life and light. We blow on the charcoal to set it afire just as God put life in man by breathing on him.
During the service, incense is placed on the smoldering coals in the censer, which the deacon or the priest then swings to and fro, censing the church, the icons, and then the people. This indicates that we are all icons of Christ and acknowledging the image and likeness of God within each, as we bow reverently.
Even in heavenly worship, God is honored with incense, as described in Revelations, with the prayers of the saints rising up before God, accompanied with incense from the hand of an angel
Before every censing the priest reads a quiet prayer:
“We offer onto Thee, 0 Christ our God, this incense for an odor of spiritual sweetness which do Thou accept upon Thy most heavenly altar, sending down upon us in return the Grace of Thy Holy Spirit.”
Listening to this prayer we understand that the smoke visible to everyone denotes the invisible presence of the Lord’s grace, which is sanctifying the faithful.
1. Note from Orthodox Study Bible (Thomas Nelson Pub.)
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas