by Rev. Fr. Theodore Ziton


During our Church Services, the priest burns incense in a censer, which is a metal vessel suspended on three chains about two feet long, and provided with a cover to regulate the burning of a small disk of charcoal placed therein. On the chains are twelve small bells, signifying the voice of the twelve Disciples of our Lord. Grains of incense are placed on the burning charcoal.

Incense is a material used to produce a fragrance when burned. It is a mixture of spices and gums burned during religious rites to produce a fragrant smoke. These grains of spices are obtained from trees in Eastern and tropical countries.

The priest places incense on the burning coals in the censer which the server swings to and fro … causing clouds of smoke to go heavenward. The ascending clouds of an incense in the Old Testament made up of fragrant gums and spices is an offering of earth’s treasures to their Creator, symbolizing prayer. “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice …” (Psalm 141: 2) Accordingly, the people would pray before the Holy of Holies while the priest within was making the sacrifice. “And the whole multitude of people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” (Luke 1: l0) The prayers went up to heaven unto God as the smoke of the incense does leaving behind the sweetness of the odor of it all the sweetness of the Holy Spirit.

So, too, in the New Testament does it have a prayerful meaning as St. John the Divine Disciple beheld how in heaven “an angel came and stood at the altar, with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden Altar before the Throne of God; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the Saints from the hand of the angel before God.” (Revelations 8:3-4), but it has a much deeper meaning; the transformed ideal. The burning coal is the burning ember. Christ, Who takes away the sins of the world as we behold in Isaiah at the calling of the prophet Isaiah, “then flew one of the Seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the Altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips: your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’ “(Isaiah 6:6-7)

Incense used at the Divine Services represents:

a. Adoration or the worship paid to God alone, present in the Eucharist. The burning of the fragrant spices shows the unimportance of all creatures before their Creator.

b. Prayer, which rises to God like smoke.

c. Grace, which God pours into our souls as incense pours fragrance throughout the Church.

The Church incenses relics, ikons and Holy things:

a. To honor God who crowned the saints in heaven, who worked wonders through them here on earth, who sanctified and glorified their bodies.

b. To show respect and devotion to the special friends and servants of the Almighty.

The Church incenses her ministers, her bishops and priests, in order to honor in their person Jesus Christ, whom they represent and with whose sacred character they are clothed.

The Church incenses the faithful in order to honor in them the likeness to Christ which was imprinted upon them in Baptism … to show them forth as the temples of the Holy Spirit. At the censing of the parishioners make the sign of the cross upon their bodies in respect to this meaning.

The Church incenses the bodies of the departed to honor the bodies which were sanctified and made holy by Baptism, and to beg God to receive the prayers and petitions we offer for the repose of the soul of the departed in the Faith.

Incense shows forth several things:

Its burning represents zeal in the service of the Lord. Think of that as you see the sacred smoke rising in the Sanctuary. Recall that you are to give of your time and talent, your service and means to the worship of God. Are you going to let a mere material creature like incense outdo you in divine service? The incense is burnt for the glory of God. How about you?

Its fragrance represents virtue, pleasing to God as it always is. How pleasing is your life and your service? Can you feel that your devotion in Church, your thoughtfulness of God, your keeping of His law, is of a kind that will please Him?

The rising smoke represents prayer and shows that your prayers are rising too. The smoke reminds you to pray, if you are not praying. The fragrance of the smoke shows that our prayer and service are pleasing to God.

God commanded Moses and His chosen people to use incense. The Church uses it in her service. Think of what all this means and it will be a source of grace and spiritual strength to you.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
May 1968
p. 23