“Let my prayer rise as incense before you and let the lifting of my hands be as an evening sacrifice. Hear me, O Lord.”
The use of incense in worship is not unique to Christians. In the Old Testament, we learn of Jews offering incense in Temple worship. We can also identify many a pagan practice of the times in which incense was burnt as an offering to the gods. Christians, as in other instances, adopted the use of incense. The fourth century patristic documents of St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. John Chrysostom to note but a few, encourage the use of incense, while the third Apostolic Canon also attributed to this century suggests that incense and oil are the only acceptable offerings to God in the Church! It is no wonder that incense was and remains so frequently used within the Divine Services as the Orthros Service prayed this morning bears witness.
Incense is a mixture of spices and gums – the earth’s treasurers as one writer has called it - that is used to produce fragrance. It is burned in a stationary metal or clay vessel as well as in the more ornate vessels, which are used by the clergy in the Church. Regardless of vessel, the scent of incense is familiar to the Orthodox faithful. Incense is what makes our churches and our homes smell like Church, as many a faithful will say, a scent that is familiar, comfortable, calming and holy.
Scripture references abound as to the use of incense. In Exodus 25:6, 30:1 and 7-8, God commands Moses to offer incense as a form of prayer and worship. The Psalmist frequently and poetically speaks of the use of incense. What did the Wise Men bring the Lord in Matthew 2:11, but gold, myrrh and frankincense – an incense common in the Middle East that was considered befitting of God. In Luke 1: 5-25, Zacharias was burning incense in the Temple, a fulfillment of his priestly duties, when an angel appeared to him and communicated that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, the forerunner. In the Book of Revelation 5:8 we are given a vision of Heavenly worship where the 24 elders before the throne of God “fall down before the Lamb, each having a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” In Revelation 8:2, we are told that an angel was given “much incense” and that the angel offered this incense “with the prayer of all the Saints upon the golden Altar, which was before the Throne.”
Within the Church, incense is used to honor items of veneration – icons, relics, the Holy Gifts, and the Altar Table. It is used to exercise, that is, to drive away demons from a space, for instance when we prepare a place for worship. Incense is an oblation, an offering for sin, a sign of penance and prayer before God. The clergy sense one another and all the faithful, acknowledging the image of Christ that is found in each and every worshipper. And, incense is used in funerals as a means of preparing the departed for burial.
As the Orthodox have such a pronounced use and appreciation for incense in the Church proper, there must also be a great benefit to burning incense within the home. Similar to its effect within the Church, it can sanctify space, establish a mood for worship with a sweet fragrance, and elevate our prayers to the Lord in the home.
It is not uncommon for those who are cradle Orthodox to reflect upon the pious practices of parents or grandparents in the home. I have frequently heard of a grandmother figure who would stand before her vigil light and icons offering her heartfelt prayers as sweet smelling incense would loft into the air. At the appropriate moment, as she recited the words sung at Great Vespers, “O Gladsome Light,” she would process through the house censing each of the icons, as well as each and every room. This ritual was in preparation for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy the next morning or in the commemoration of a family or favored saint. What a blessing it is for an individual or a family to nostalgically reflect upon such a pious ritual. It is however a much greater blessing for all of us to learn from these pious acts, adopting them as rituals within our homes.
Now that Constantine is a bit older – pushing three and a half – we have begun the tradition of “big boy” prayers the evening prior to the celebration of the liturgy. The practice is this: Constantine and I will stand in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ with a vigil light and incense burning. After we have recited the Trisagion – Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal…advancing through the Lord’s Prayer and offered our prayers for our family and friends (Constantine has to call his own list to mind), Constantine will put a few pieces of incense on a clay censor and then carry the censor through the house, making the sign of the Cross in front of all of their icons and religious artifacts. If his sister is already sleeping, he will simply stop in front of her door and make the sign of the Cross with the censor to bless her and her room. Room by room, he offers incense on behalf of the family, asking God to bless his family as they retire for the evening and in preparation for the Divine Liturgy the next morning. This is but one example, but an example nonetheless of a practice that can be incorporated into an individual or family’s prayer discipline.
As I began with verses from Psalm 140/141 that are chanted in Great Vespers as well as in the Service of Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, I close with a prayer offered by the Bishop or in his absence the priest any time that incense is used in Divine Services: “We offer you this incense Christ our God. Accept it upon your heavenly altar and send down upon us the Grace of Your Holy Spirit. “ My sincere hope is that these words be translated from our corporate worship into the private devotion of each and every home of the faithful. What a blessing it would be for us as individuals and in turn our Parish and the greater community were our homes to be consecrated with the holy fragrance of incense and through the presence of the Grace of the Holy Spirit which is invited to condescend and dwell in our midst as our prayers rise to the heavens. Amen.