Have you ever wondered why we use so much incense in the Orthodox church? Or maybe you’ve been wondering why multiple times, during any number of Eastern Orthodox services, the priest will cense icons (pictures) or the faithful?
I remember a few months ago when I stayed home from church one Sunday morning due to illness; when the kids and John can home I could smell that they had been in church. They perfumed with the scent of incense. This brought a smile to my face and my heart was instantly glad.
Incense is apart of our worship. Psalm 141:2 David sings “may my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” We are made of five senses and the sense of smell plays a strong role in our everyday lives. Sent brings in memories that we may have forgotten and in our worship it is a call to pray and to think of God.
And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.
Throughout the service the Priest will cense different objects on the altar and in the church. For example the Eucharist is censed, as are relics and icons. In accordance with the old testament tradition, as an essential mode of worship to God, objects of sanctity and repute are censed.
I myself had always wondered why the Priest would come out into the congregation and cense the faithful (parishioners). Like anything else you aren’t familiar with or don’t have the context for you might think it’s just something they do. On the contrary! Nothing done in an Orthodox service is without consciousness and the idea “that we are participants of heaven on earth”.
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?
We are the housing place of the Holy Spirit; as such we are to be censed as well. As I said earlier objects of sanctity are always censed. This idea of me being something of sanctity got me thinking. When the Priest censes the congregation he doesn’t first ask us if we have been holy that week. He doesn’t run down the list in his head of those who have come to confession or not. He doesn’t exclude anyone who comes to worship. He censes me in spite of me. LIGHT BULB MOMENT, PEOPLE!
Be holy for I am holy.
The Priest censes me because I should be living as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. This is my opportunity to be reminded that I am not my own; that I am holy (and that if I am not, I’d better do something about it).
All throughout the service I am being reminded that God is gracious, faithful and deserving of my worship. How lovely the images I see, hear, and taste, of his grace and mercy to me that spurs me on to a more faithful life. We pray to be reminded of His grace as we work toward a holier life.