Adler goes on to say, on pages 27-28, that God not only sanctions the use of incense, but also gives some strict guidelines for using it. He also maintains - as I do - that the offering of incense is for the intercession of the saints! One of those strict guidelines for usage is found in Exodus 30:9, where it talks about a prohibition from offering "strange incense" on the altar of God. This has a very modern-day application to it, and the Church has some strong guidelines for the type of incense used even today. The reason for this is simply that like so many things, the pagans and other religions do use incense as well, and for the same reason. However, unlike the accusations often bandied about by some Protestant Evangelicals, the reason pagans use incense is because it is a corruption of God's law; pagans also use incense for intercessions to their deities, and Satan and his demonic hordes have done what they could over the years to corrupt holy things and bastardize them. So, I say this based on that evidence - the Church did not borrow the use of incense from the pagans, but rather the pagans stole the idea from us! Incense is Biblical, it is part of the worship of the Heavenly Throne Room (on which both the Hebraic liturgy of the ancient Temple as well as the liturgy of the Church are modeled, by the way!), and thus is not only appropriate for worship, but vital. However, because Satan likes to corrupt things, he has robbed the Christian churches - in particular the Protestant Evangelicals - of a great blessing by dissemination of false information, hearsay, and prejudice. If I were to have been exposed to some of the wacky stuff going on out there that some Evangelicals perceive liturgical worship as being, I would not want any part of it either! However, thankfully, I have learned the truth, and I really and sincerely believe that if Protestant Evangelicals really understood that truth, they would be filling up liturgies to standing capacity, because they would discover something that many of them feel they are probably missing as part of their own Christian walks. That is why it is time for us to begin to do as II Timothy admonishes by "studying to show ourselves approved," and not listening to stupidity often published by some disgruntled person with an axe to grind, such as the Jack Chick crowd and others.
Moving on, I came across a good article about the use of incense in the Orthodox Christian liturgies by an Antiochian priest by the name of Father Theodore Ziton entitled "LITURGY AND LIFE -The Use of Incense in Church," which you can read for yourself at http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/liturgics/ziton_use_of_incense.htm. Fr. Ziton makes some excellent points as he writes the article, and he also uses it to explain the various uses of incense during an Orthodox Liturgy, and here is what he says:
1. It represents adoration or worship paid to God alone, as present in the Holy Eucharist. The burning of fragrant spices is symbolic of the unworthiness and humility of creation before He who created us.
2. It represents prayer, which rises to God as smoke.
3. It represents grace, as God flows his grace into our souls like the aroma of incense fills the church.
He goes on to mention why icons, relics, and the congregation, as well as the Gospel Book, are incensed at various points in the Liturgy:
1. To honor God who crowned the saints in heaven (the Church Expectant), and who glorified their bodies.
2. To show respect for certain friends and servants of the Lord Almighty, as well as for His Holy Gospel.
3. By incensing the clergy, it represents honoring in their persons Jesus Christ, to Whom in the Liturgy they serve as representatives.
4. By incensing the people, it shows that we as Christians are yielded vessels and temples of the Holy Spirit. When we are censed in the congregation, it is also customary to cross ourselves as we receive that, like we do with any blessing.
Fr. Ziton continues that article with the fact that the fire of the incense represents holy zeal, which of course comes from Jesus Himself, and is the divine nature of Jesus Christ. Fire is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit, the "consuming fire' that renews, cleanses, and convicts us. As to the aroma and smoke of the incense itself, it represents of course our prayers and intercessions, and like any symbol it also serves to remind us of the importance of a consistent prayer life. The sweet fragrance shows us that the sincere prayer of His people is pleasing to Him, and that He will honor a prayer prayed in humility and sincerity. What we see here then, is that incense is an incentive to pursue faithfulness in our Christian walk through prayer. We petition our needs, intercede for the needs of others, and also respond to the grace of the Holy Spirit's conviction to humbly confess and repent of our sins to God, who through His Son Jesus Christ provides blessed atonement for our sins. And, that is why the Church uses incense in our worship!
Now, back to the censer itself. As mentioned the bowl, or thurible, is a picture of the Theotokos, and the coal represents the humanity of Jesus Christ while the fire His divinity as God the Son. Note too that the thurible is suspended from chains - sometimes three (symbolizing the Trinity of the Godhead) or by four (symbolizing the Four Evangelists that wrote the Holy Gospels). In the Christian East, often there are some little bells attached to those chains (in the Western Church, censers don't typically have bells), and these you will notice are in groups of three (if there are four chains) or four (if their are three chains). These bells represent two things:
1. They are symbolic of the Twelve Apostles, or of the Cherubim about the Throne of God.
2. They, by their ringing, symbolize praise to the Almighty.
Bells have always been a symbol of both praise and of drawing attention to the important parts of the Liturgy, such as the holiness of God in the Eucharist or during the sung Trisagion (or Sanctus in the Western Church). I will be doing the next study more in-depth on bells, but for here I wanted to specifically mention that their inclusion on the censer in the East represents something interesting - by swinging the censer, our prayers and praises rise together unto the Lord as one! Adoration, praise, and thanksgiving to the Almighty are very fundamental to our worship as individuals and as a Church, and the ringing of bells reminds us of that. And, this will more or less bridge this study with our next one.
It is my hope and prayer that this study has not only dispelled some really dumb misunderstandings about why we as sacramental/liturgical Christians use incense in our worship, but also I hope it instilled a new appreciation for why we do what we do. Symbolism is the way God speaks to us oftentimes - it is not something to be shunned or discarded, but is rather how He created us to understand things, and throughout Scripture symbolism is used for a lot of things. As liturgical Christians, we use a lot of symbolism in our worship, as practically even the most minor details of a church's furnishings may have symbolic significance. In that aspect, it merely means we are surrounding ourselves with these symbols to remind us that God is always near to us as believers, and these symbols also convey profound truths of our faith. We must remind ourselves - particularly if we have been brought up in this mindset of metaphor and abstraction that characterises much of Evangelicalism, where God is often deprived of his personhood and made a mere abstraction that floats around out there like Caspar the Friendly Ghost or something - that God is real, and we are real people, not ghosts and spooks. God created our senses for a reason, so let us use all of them to give worship and adoration to Him, for honestly after what He's done for us it is the least we can do. God be with and bless you all until next time.