The Offering of Incense

The offering of incense in Orthodox Christian worship is likely the most misunderstood element of that worship.  Worship, in general, outside of the Orthodox Church in other Christian traditions is widely considered to be a matter of preference.  If not merely taste, worship ‘styles’ are seen to resonate differently with different people and this resonance is taken to be spiritual experience rather than nostalgic or aesthetic experience.  Many communities profess to offer the same worship in a variety of styles on a given day, implying that the connection between the details of worship and its content or experience is loose and variable.  In this way, ritual is reduced to language.  It is a vehicle for communicating certain content to an audience and that vehicle can, therefore, be translated in various ways for various audiences.  Liturgical worship, then, is conceived of as simply one more taste, one more language in which some audiences prefer to receive communications.  Even with this watered-down understanding of worship, however, the offering of incense stands at the center as the censer is the source of both the proverbial “smells” and the proverbial “bells.”

Ritual is one of several ways in which human persons interact with reality.  Others include language, music, and art.  The preceding is an example of how ritual can be reduced to language but this can happen in other ways as well.  The liturgical task is often, even in Orthodox circles, reduced to simply a task of translation.  This can take the form of attempting to get the words ‘right’ or to make sure that they properly communicate a particular interpretation of the originally composed texts.  In either case, however, ritual is reduced to text and communications.  Certainly, liturgy can be reduced to music as well in an Orthodox context.  An emphasis on excellence in liturgical music is laudable, but when pursued at the expense of all else can reduce worship to a concert with congregants as an audience.  The reduction of ritual to art is no less possible.  This approach treats elements of the liturgy as symbolic, speaking of what each element represents.  This approach, however, severs ritual from reality making it a performance.  While it is historically true that drama and storytelling evolved out of ritual, their power is grounded in the ritual elements still contained therein.  This is why the explanation of the symbolism of art never carries with it the same power as the art itself.  One of the central affirmations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council is that the Eucharist, the center of the Divine Liturgy, is not an icon.

Ritual, in contrast, does something.  It is, therefore, best understood by asking what a liturgical service or element does.  The mysteries of the Church do things.  Baptism does something to the baptized.  The blessing of water does something to the water.  The consecration of the Eucharist does something to the elements.  Matrimony does something to the man and woman married.  To understand the offering of incense, then, is to ask what the offering of incense, what censing in the services of the Church, does.  This is its own question.  It is a mode of inquiry that is not only different from but opposed to others.  It does not ask what incense ‘represents’.  It does not ask what a censing ‘communicates’ on an intellectual level to an audience watching it take place.  These questions are not just irrelevant to what is happening ritually, pursuing the question along those lines will lead one away from the reality of ritual to a mere symbol or intellectual abstraction.  Either of these makes the offering of the incense itself irrelevant as the posited separate ‘reality’ could be symbolized or communicated to a different audience in a completely different way while losing nothing of substance.

Worship, properly understood, is made up of sacrificial ritual.  Though it has been largely forgotten, the offering of incense is a sacrifice.  It has been, in the history of religion, the predominant mode of sacrificial offering.  The core of Israelite worship was the offering of incense with prayers at dawn and at twilight (Ex 30:7-9).  This was done within the context of the trimming and lighting of the lamps in the tabernacle and then the temple.  The incense was offered on its own sacrificial altar, built according to specific instructions, and placed before the curtain, embroidered with images of the Cherubim and the heavenly host, which separated off the most holy place (v. 1-6).  This altar, like the altar of burnt offering and the ark of the covenant itself, was cleansed with blood to maintain its purity on the Day of Atonement (v. 10).  Just as there were detailed instructions in the Torah regarding the offerings of meat, grain, cakes, and drink, so too there are detailed instructions regarding the composition of the incense to be offered on this altar (v. 34-38).  The violation of these commandments, just as those regarding other sacrifices, carry with them the highest sanction.

That incense is being offered as a sacrifice is the content of the prayer by which incense is blessed.  “Incense we offer thee, O Christ our God, as an odor of spiritual fragrance.  Receive it upon thy heavenly altar and send down in return upon us the gift of thine Holy Spirit.”  Our incense offering is directed toward Christ’s heavenly altar just as the offering of the Eucharist is in the Proskomedia prayers.  Our offering is in connection to the descent of the Holy Spirit just as is the offering of the Eucharist.  The fragrance of the incense rising before God is spoken of in the same language as the aroma of sacrificial burnt offerings in the Scriptures (cf. Gen 8:21; Lev 1:9, 13; 2:2; 23:18).  The Eucharist is the pinnacle and center of Christian worship and therefore the central sacrificial act of the Church.  The offering of incense, however, serves the same function within the services of Vespers and Orthros as those services are continued from Aaron’s service of them in the tabernacle which the Eucharist serves within the Divine Liturgy.  It is the sacrificial hub around which the prayers offered both formally and by individuals revolve.  The prayers of the people and the saints are offered along with the sacrificial offering and accompany it in every sense.

Like other sacrifices described in the Torah, the offering of incense contains elements of propitiation and expiation.  The propitiatory element has already been discussed.  To propitiate simply means to please and consists of the sacrificial worship, the offering of incense, ascending as a pleasing aroma.  Within Orthodox worship, the offering of incense takes the particular form of a censing rather than the offering of incense primarily from a stationary altar.  This is because of the expiatory function which this sacrificial offering accomplishes.  The use of censers as ritual implements in the tabernacle and temple was an extension of the altar of incense in a quite literal way.  Coals and incense from the altar were placed within the censer in order to give them mobility.  On the Day of Atonement, the high priest brought fire and incense from the altar in a censer back into the most holy place to produce the cloud of incense which would shield Yahweh, at his appearance, from the high priest that the latter might live (Lev 16:12).  In the Apocalypse of St. John, censers are used by angelic beings to bring offerings from the visible world to the presence of God (Rev 8:3).  They also use censers to bring the fire of the heavenly altar to the earth (8:5).

What is censed with the incense of God’s altar is cleansed and purified.  This is so ingrained so deeply at a conceptual level that it is reflected in ancient linguistics.  The Greek verb ‘kathairo’, the origin of the English word ‘catharsis’, means ‘to cleanse’ or ‘to purify’.  It is was derived directly from Akkadian in the archaic period along with a number of other words connected to sacrificial ritual.  The Akkadian ‘qataru’ from which it is derived means ‘to offer incense’, as do the related cognates ‘qatar’ in Hebrew and ‘qtr‘ in Ugaritic.  In Mesopotamian and Western Semitic religion, the smoke of sacrificial incense was seen to fumigate objects, people, and spaces from corruption and evil.  This understanding was also held in Israelite and Second Temple religion and received by Christianity.  As modern materialists, we tend to view matter as neutral, but for our fathers, people, objects, and spaces were never neutral.  In preparation for the arrival of Christ in the midst of the community, just as in the preparation for his appearance in the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement in the tabernacle and temple, sacred space to be used for worship, the implements of worship, and the worshippers themselves must be cleansed and purified from the residuum of sin and common use to which they have been put in the intervening time between worship.

Numbers 16 describes powerfully the ritual function of the offering of incense.  A large group of Levites, led by Korah and his sons, opposed Moses and Aaron and sought to usurp the high priesthood from Aaron and his family.  These 250 rebels were supported by a large number of their fellow Israelites, seemingly a large majority.  This was a rebellion not against Moses and Aaron but against Yahweh who had chosen Aaron and his family for this service.  Particular forms of priestly service are given, not seized.  In response to this, Yahweh commands Moses and Aaron to gather along with the 250 rebels at the tent of meeting with lit censers in hand to offer worship to him, thus reinforcing the nature of the priesthood (v. 6, 17-18).  Once they are gathered, the ground opens up and the leaders of the rebellion are swallowed up by Sheol, sharing the fate of the spiritual rebels against Yahweh (v. 32-33).  They were consumed by the fire of Yahweh’s presence (v. 35).  Their censers are gathered up by Eleazar and melted down into a covering for the altar which will serve as a symbol of Yahweh’s granting of the priesthood to Aaron (v. 37-40).

While their supporters fled in terror at this judgment, in less than a day they begin to grumble against Moses and Aaron again and accuse them of murder.  The consequence of their continuing to join in this rebellion is a plague that breaks out on the camp.  Moses and Aaron, however, intercede for them.  Aaron takes fire and incense from the altar in the tabernacle in his censer and goes into the camp, taking his stand on the border between the living and the dead and stopping the plague through the cleansing effect of the offering of incense and his intercessions (v. 45-48).  Sin is rebellion.  Sin is a deadly plague which kills and destroys.  Sacrificial worship purifies and cleanses from sin and heals its destructive and deadly effects on persons, on communities, and on creation itself.  These teachings lie at the core of the Torah.  These teachings are enacted through the offering of incense to Christ with prayers as a purifying, cleansing, and restorative act.  It is the marrow of worship, not a preference or an accouterment.

About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.


  1. Father,

    I’m a long time reader, first-time commenter. I think this blog is an incredible resource for understanding the Scriptural foundation of our Church. I found this post very powerful, for it raised two key points that we need to think about with regards to worship. First, ritual does something – when others ask why we do certain things in worship, we shouldn’t fall back on representational explanations or “what it stands for,” we should explain what it is actually doing, in our world and in our lives. Second, worship should be pleasing to God – after all, that’s why we’re doing it, to please Him. When we get hung up on our own preferences, we forget who worship is really for – God, and what He asks of us.

    Thank you for giving me so much to ponder and pray about, and I am excited to see what you have next in store for us to learn about.

  2. Yes, very helpful Father. Especially your particular attention to ritual. It reveals so much that our modern minds do not ‘see’.
    Many thanks.

  3. You said,

    “The offering of incense, however, serves the same function within the services of Vespers and Orthros as those services are continued from Aaron’s service of them in the tabernacle which the Eucharist serves within the Divine Liturgy. It is the sacrificial hub around which the prayers offered both formally and by individuals revolve. The prayers of the people and the saints are offered along with the sacrificial offering and accompany it in every sense.”

    That sentence is a little hard to understand, but i take it you mean that we are still offering the Evening and Morning prayers mandated in the Torah and served in the Tabernacle by Aaron with an offering of incense— and that our offering of incense has the same function within Morning and Evening prayer, as the Eucharist has within the Liturgy. Now, that’s an interesting parallel, but my understanding is that the sacrifices of the Old Covenant have been replaced by the One Sacrifice of Christ; we offer, precisely, the Eucharistic Lamb, not the blood of goats and bulls.

    But you seem to be saying that we are still offering Aaron’s incense. Why does this continue where the offering of animals does not?


    You also mention that Greek ‘katharō’ is derived from Akkadian ‘qataru’, Hebrew ‘qatar’, and Ugaritic ‘qtr‘. Of course those last three are all cognate because all three languages are Semitic, but what documentation have you found for any relationship with the Greek word? I would be very interested to know about this.

    Because I had always assumed that the word was a form of ‘kat-hairéō’, which can mean to ‘take away’, I thought, No, that can’t possibly be right! But then i decided to check my resources, so I consulted Chantraine, then Frisk, and finally Beekes and Van Beek, and I learned that there is in fact a difference between ‘katharō’ and ‘kat-hairéō’, but the best i could find on was ‘katharō’—

    “No etymology, see Frisk and DELG for unsuccessful older attempts. The variation a/o points to Pre-Greek origin (Fur.: 391 even connects it with ἀθαρής, but this is doubtful). Alternatively, Peters 1993b: 95ff. takes up the old connection with Skt. śithirá- ‘loose’, reconstructing [*krth-ro-], but this etymology needs too many ad hoc assumptions: independent dissimilatory loss of the first r in both branches, doubtful laryngeal aspiration *tH > Θ (πλατύς; is a strong counterexample, and cannot be explained away by πλὰταμών), and too complicated semantics.” (Beekes and Van Beek, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, 2 vols; Brill: Leiden, 2010).

    The best Frisk could come up with is, “religioser Terminus vorgriechischen Ursprungs”— that is, “religious term of pre-Greek origin”, quoting Ebert, Reallexikon.

    I would be very interested to know whether any connection with the Semitic ‘qtr’ root is actually documented anywhere, or whether this is speculative.

    Sorry to go all academic on you, but to me, that etymological claim is _really interesting_.

    1. I’ve written a lot, and am writing still more, about the way in which every element of the Torah is still in effect in the Church, though in a fulfilled (transformed) way in many cases. So there are a series of posts addressing elements of this early in this blog’s archives as well as scattered posts on circumcision and other topics. I’ll include a link here to one about sacrifice. Without being able to reproduce all of that here in the comment section, the very short version is that certain of the sacrifices of the Torah continue to operate within the Church in the Eucharist, as you say, though I would stress the continuity, rather than replacement. This is a transformation that takes place through Christ’s sacrificial offering. Others continue in a more or less identical form, such as the offering of incense. There is nothing in the New Testament that speaks to any transformation taking place within the rite of the offering of incense. I’ll also link here an article of mine on the Eucharist and food sacrifices.κοινωνια-in-i-corinthians-10-14-22/

      Vis a vis ‘qtr’ roots, West collects a whole series of Akkadian roots that made their way into Greek in the archaic period in East Face of Helicon. He also gives the documentation for individual cases so that you can follow that out in any particular area of interest. These are pretty much all words related to sacrificial ritual and forms part of West’s case for the development of archaic Greek religion from Semitic sources. It’s safe to say that ‘religious term of pre-Greek origin’, in most cases, means Akkadian.

Comments are closed.