In the Orthodox Church, near the end of Divine Liturgy, there is a prayer to God to “Sanctify those that love the beauty of Thy House.” Especially in my first months and years in the Orthodox Church I clung to that prayer, thinking, “Lord, there is a lot I don’t understand, and there are many ways in which I fail to live for You, fail to enter fully into the services; but one thing I know is that I do love the beauty of Your House.”
One aspect of that beauty that contributes to the worship I offer is incense. It is one of those elements that is left out whenever I post a picture taken in a church service. In those visual images you get, of course, only the visual.
When I shoot the photograph, it is in the midst of a lavish sensual experience: hymns and prayers being sung almost constantly, deacons and priests frequently censing everything and everyone in the temple, the smell of beeswax candles, and the touch of fellow worshipers as we bump past one another or when we arrange ourselves on the floor to hear the homily. Later when I look at the picture in my home, it so noticeably does not convey half of the sensations that were pressing upon my mind at the time. It is literally flat, and as a testimony of what went on, very lacking.
We believe that the heavenly Kingdom comes to us in the liturgy, so I can’t hope to give an inkling of what that is like to someone who has never been present, or whose heart is not ready to receive the Lord in these material ways. You really have to be there.
But I will include yet another image in this post, just to add visual interest, conceding to the limitations of this medium. This pic shows the people singing. Someone has said that the liturgy is like one continuous song.
I’ll let Wikipedia tell more about the tradition of censing: “As part of the legacy handed down from its Judaic roots, incense is used during all services in the Orthodox Church as an offering of worship to God as it was done in the Jewish First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (Exodus chapter 30). Traditionally, the base of the incense used is the resin of Boswellia thurifera, also known as frankincense, but the resin of fir trees has been used as well. It is usually mixed with various floral essential oils giving it a sweet smell. Incense represents the sweetness of the prayers of the saints rising up to God.”
From The Lament of Eve by Johanna Manley:
The fragrance of love! When we burn incense, we think of the fragrant heavenly aroma of love. The Holy Spirit, like a heavenly fire, brings the warmth of love into the human heart, and like a fresh wind, chases away the stench of sin and spreads the aroma of Christ to the world. That savor all the saints have borne within themselves. People have sensed it in living saints and in their relics. The Apostle speaks of this: “We are unto God a sweet savour of Christ,” the sweet perfume of recognition of the truth and the sweetness of love (cf. 2 Cor. 2:14-16).