In our Orthodox church, we burn incense in a metal vessel that hangs on three chains and has a sliding cover to regulate the burning of charcoal. The whole apparatus is called a censer or thurible. On the chains are twelve small bells, signifying the Disciples.
We put grains of incense on burning charcoal in the censer with a prayer, “We offer thee incense, O Christ our God, for an odor of spiritual fragrance. Receive it upon your heavenly altar and send down upon us, in return, the gift of your Holy Spirit.” Incense is a mix of spices and gums that we burn during services to produce fragrant smoke.
We do not know when incense was introduced into church services. It is quite likely that we used it from the beginning of Christian worship, since its use was common in Jewish worship in the Temple at Jerusalem. This is a supposition, however, because the early witnesses are silent about its use. We only find it recommended from about the 4th century on.
The burning incense symbolizes prayer. “Let my prayer come before thee as incense, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. . . .“ (Psalm 141: 2 – used during Vespers as the whole church is censed). In Old Testament times, the people would pray before the Holy of Holies while the priest within made the sacrifice. “And the whole multitude of people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” (Luke 1: 10) Symbolically, the incense represents prayer ascending to God.
Incense continues to have that attachment to prayer in the New Testament, as we see in the book of Revelation. “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.” (Revelation 8: 3-4). We remember that Christ received frankincense as one of the gifts of the Magi (Matthew 2:11).
In our liturgy we burn incense to symbolize:
1. Worship of God who is present in the Temple and in the Eucharist.
2. Prayer rising to God like the smoke.
3. The Grace of the Holy Spirit (see prayer above), which God pours upon us as incense pours fragrance throughout the Church.
The Church censes icons and other Holy things to honor God who crowns these saints in heaven, who worked wonders through them here on earth, and who sanctified and glorified their bodies; and to demonstrate our devotion to these special friends and servants of God called Saints.
We cense bishops and priests to honor in them Jesus Christ, whom they represent and with whose sacred character they are clothed.
We cense the faithful in order to honor in you the likeness to Christ that was imprinted on you at Baptism and to honor you as temples of the Holy Spirit (I Cor 6). When you are censed, you should make the sign of the cross to remind yourself of your baptism and that you are a Temple, made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1). Theologically, this censing is very important. Orthodoxy is focused on theosis, on “becoming like God,” not in Essence but through God’s Energies (as great writers like St John of Damascus and St Gregory Palamas made clear), which are imparted to us in myriad ways and chiefly through the sacraments. We cense the icons first because they are the people among us whom we venerate as having received theosis in high degree; we cense ourselves because we are in process, throughout this life, of becoming more and more God-like by grace. In a sense, you may also see censing people as a wake-up call: Recognize that you are made in the image of God and that you are being restored to that image and likeness through Christ who is at work in you through the Spirit to become a “partaker in the divine nature” (II Peter). Therefore, we cense the departed in the funeral rites to honor their bodies, made holy at Baptism, and to offer prayer for the repose of their souls.
When we cense the church, please note that you do NOT make the sign of the cross as the priest (or deacon) comes through for the great censing until he returns to the royal doors, turns and censes the congregation at that point. When he is going through the church the first time around, he is censing the icons and not the people present at worship. This is also true, but more obvious, for the smaller censings at the Alleluia and at before the Cherubic Hymn.