2c. THE INCENSE
After the prayer of the Cherubic Hymn, the celebrant priest takes the censor and while saying the 50th Psalm in a low voice, censes the Holy Altar and the prothesis. Then, he comes out through the Beautiful Gate and censes the icons of Christ, the Most Holy Theotokos, John the Baptist and the patron saint of the church. Next, he turns towards the congregation and censes all the people. But what is the meaning of this censing?
In the Old Testament, incense was used in divine worship. The archpriest and the priests censed the people who gathered in the Tabernacle of the Witness and later in the Temple of Solomon. As the smoke of the incense rose up, in the same way the prayers of pious people rose up towards heaven. The prophet king David said: “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps 140:2).
In the New Testament while Zechariah, the father of John Baptist the Forerunner, was censing the holy sanctuary and all the people were praying, he saw an angel. Zechariah was frightened but the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John” (Lk 1:13).
The pious priest Zechariah saw an angel, when he was censing. One of the great fathers and teachers of the Church, St. Ambrose, commenting on this exceptional event said: “May an angel be present when we too cense the holy sanctuary.” As John the Evangelist saw in his Revelation. When the seventh seal was opened, an angel came holding a golden censor. Much incense was given to the angel. This incense was the prayers and petitions of the saints (Rev 8:3).
Incense, therefore, is a symbol of the prayers of the Christians. The archpriest or the priest who censes is gathering, in a way, the prayers from all the worshippers. It is a strong exhortation for prayer. It is as if he says: Christians, pray and send your silent prayers to the Heavenly Father. All the prayers united together will perform the miracle. They will attract the great mercy of God... For this reason, when the priest censes, the congregation should rise from their seats, step away from the “stasidia” and make a bow. In this way they give an answer to the priest’s invitation.
May our eyes drop tears, like the incense trees. May the hearts of sinners be humble and pray to God. These prayers will rise in the air like fragrant incense. All pious women should have a censer next to the iconostasis and perfume their homes with incense. These warm prayers will make homes like a church. For where there is incense and prayer, the devil cannot stay.