Orthopraxy – Let My Prayer Arise as Incense

from the weekly bulletin of St. Andrew Orthodox Church

 censing-in-church1 If there is a distinct smell that one notices when they enter an Orthodox Church, it is the smell of incense lingering from whatever the last service was.  It is in the walls, the carpets, the vestments.  The sweet smelling savor fills the temple and is usually noticeable as soon as you enter the nave.  But why do we use incense?  What does it mean?
The Divine Liturgy is said to mimic the liturgy in heaven. In Revelations 8:3,4, we see a description of the heavenly worship: “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints on the golden altar which was before the throne.”  In each Vespers service, we pray as the psalmist did “Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense.”  Incense and prayer are inextricably linked in the Bible.  It is very common even in family prayer at your icon corner, to light incense.  In Malachi, it is prophesied “…and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name.”  (Malachi. 1:11.) Indeed, we could rightly wonder whether a community that does not use incense is serious in any way about either scripture or prayer.

Incense and worship are linked scripturally and in the services of the Church.  Scripturally, offering incense was also an offering of honor.  What did the Magi bring to the Christ child? Frankincense and myrrh! (Matthew 2:11).  We cense the holy icons which we honor and which help us in our prayer.  We cense the people, because we are icons of God, made in his image. (In practice, it is common to see people cross themselves when they priest censes the people.  Traditionally, though, it is more proper to simply bow your head and receive the honor being given to you.)  We cense the Holy Table, honoring the precious gifts and asking that our prayers arise like incense and the Holy Spirit descend upon us in return!

In these censings, the incense reminds us of these important theological points.  We remember the divine imprint within ourselves.  We remember that the Holy Spirit fills the temple (and our hearts) as the incense fills the air.  We are reminded that our prayer is carried up to God as the incense rises and fills the church!

So let us remember, brothers and sisters, that as the sweet smell of incense fills the temple, it is not just a perfume.  It is an integral part of worship, based in the Bible and in historical Jewish and Christian worship.  It is this historic and biblical form of worship preserved today in the Orthodox Church.  Come and See!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *