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.