Sensing/Censing Our Salvation

“If Christ, the humble one, were to approach the beasts of prey as soon as their eye rests on him, their wildness is tamed and they come to him and accompany him as their master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and his feet. For they smell from him the smell which spread from Adam before his transgression, when the beasts gathered near him and he gave them names, in Paradise – the smell which was taken from us and given back to us anew by Christ through his advent, which made the smell of the human race sweet.” Isaac the Syrian, Homily 82

There is something wrong with a culture in which the people recognize and wear the odour of Tommy Hilfiger and yet have never smelled the odour of frankincense, the odour associated with the presence God in both the Old and New Testament.

“From the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my Name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my Name, and a pure offering for my Name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts.” Mal. 1:11

I. Incense is a Symbol for The Prayers of God’s People

“And the whole multitude of people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” Luke 1:10
“An angel came and stood at the altar, with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the Throne of God; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angels before God.” Revelation 8:3-4

As the Eastern Orthodox put it, in the Divine Service, the Eucharist is not only Christ coming to us in the Sacrament, but it is also our lifting up into Heaven where Christ reigns.

2. Censing is the Liturgical Way of Honoring, Blessing, and Anointing Objects and People.

We cense the Altar at the very beginning of the Holy Communion, which means that we also cense the fair linen which has five crosses embroidered upon it and we cense the Cross which is the center of our attention and devotion. Liturgically censing these objects is a way to acknowledge that they are set apart, sanctified for the worship of God exclusively. By censing them we also venerate them for what they signify, for the Holy Reality they represent – namely the free-will sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross for our salvation. Commonly, when the Bishop blesses objects (and even when he blesses a church building for worship) he often anoints them with holy oil. The celebrant anoints these material objects used in the worship of God, not with oil, but with incense.

After the sermon the thurifer censes the celebrant and the celebrant in turn censes the thurifer. The celebrant then censes the gifts upon the Altar, the bread and wine prior to their consecration and then he gives the thurible back to the thurifer who then censes the ministers, the choir, the organist and the Faithful in the nave. By censing the people the thurifer, acting in his liturgical office, is reminding us that we are the children of God, set apart for his purposes:

“But you are a chose race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” I Peter 2:9-10

By censing all those ministering in the Divine Service and also censing the Faithful in the nave, the thurifer in his office, is blessings, venerating, and anointing us for the liturgy, which word literally means “the work of the people.” We bow frequently in the church. Many of the Faithful will dip their fingers into the baptismal font and make the sing of the cross, thus blessing themselves. As we slip into the pew we acknowledge the Altar, the Cross, the Reserved Sacrament by bowing moderately or by genuflecting. When before the thurifer censes someone he will bow moderately to that person again out of respect for his sibling in Christ who has been made a child of God in Holy Baptism. We are not bowing to the incense or the smoke, but to the person censing and the persons being censed.

As an aside, bowing is not only a liturgical way to show honor and to bless, but liturgically speaking it is the way we say “thank you” as we serve at the Altar. That is why you see us bowing modestly to one another so often.

As another aside there are three forms of bowing:
a. The modest bow which is accomplished with one’s neck.
b. The moderate bow, which is done from one’s shoulders.
c. The profound bow which is done from one’s waist.
d. Genuflection is a form of the profound bow and it involves touching the knee to the ground in a gesture of reverence and worship. Some of the Faithful make the sign of the cross while genuflecting. Generally speaking one genuflects when entering or existing the pew.

3. Redeeming Olfaction and Christian Knowing

“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the sweet smelling savor of Christ unto God among those who are being saved…” II Cor. 2:15

In my next posting on Incense I will explore the questions: Is the olfactory sense an organ of knowledge? What is the odour of sanctity and what does it mean? Might the olfactory sense and imagination militate against Docetism & Rationalism? Does the olfactory sense need redeeming?


  1. Hello, Fr. Glenn and all.

    I happened to read from Numbers after class last night and was sensitized to the passage in a way I hadn’t been before. Here are some verses that hit me afresh in light of the discussion on incense.

    1) From Num 15: A burnt offering or sacrifice, i.e. burning flesh, was a “sweet aroma” to the Lord. Was this sweet because of what it signified or was it a physical aroma that actually pleased the Lord and was “sweet” to Him? What types of worship please him and does that include smells?

    2) From Num 16: When Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rose up before Moses in rebellion, after the earth opened up and swallowed them (and their households) a plague broke out in judgment against the Israelites. In this interesting case, incense was actually used to atone for the plague. “So Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put incense on it, and take it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them; for wrath has gone out from the Lord. The plague has begun.’ Then Aaron took it as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the assembly; and already the plague had begun among the people. So he put in the incense and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; so the plague was stopped.” Num 16: 46-8 I find this interesting because usually the blood of sacrifice was used to atone, right? Was it the ‘fire from the altar’ that symbolized God’s judgment and was the incense symbolic of the sweet, crushing death of our Lord, who was embalmed in fragrant spices, including myrrh?

    Just some thoughts…what do you all think?

    God bless!

    • Hi Lynne,
      Thank you for this thought provoking comment! I have to give this some thought, but I think that we do best to lean toward taking these statements at face value and assuming that their is some genuine pleasure taken by God, especially in light of the Incarnation, in the odours of the sacrifices. The fact that the incense offering was in some manner atoning is striking. Another thought is that incense is a “whole burnt offering” in that it is totally consumed. Thanks again for sharing this with us!
      Fr. Glenn

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