The Orthodox Church preserves the historical practice of using incense in all of its services, reminiscent of the Jewish custom of offering up fragrant incense in the temple. Incense in worship of God was used by the Jews as a sign of recognition of the transcendent value of God and was a symbol of submission and devotion. Incense is one of the three gifts offered by the Magi to our Lord.
The priest swings the censer towards the altar with the eucharistic gifts set upon it, then walks out of the altar area, censes all of the icons bearing the image of the saints, and then swings the censer towards each person present at the service. This practice declares the reality that the offering God’s people give is no longer confined to a building, because we worship in spirit and in truth. That is, we offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God [Romans 12:1], and are thus living altars devoting our entire being to His service since we are the climactic element of Creation bearing God’s image.
The smoke symbolizes our prayers rising before the throne of God. As the incense is placed on the lit charcoal and remains there, it heats, rises and spreads its fragrance. Likewise our souls are warmed by contact with God and our faithful prayer rises above earthly material concerns to the heavenly spiritual worship of God. “Let my prayer arise as incense before You …” is the momentum of the soul upwards to God. At the same time, incense symbolizes the fervent desire to have our prayer accepted by God as a “sweet spiritual fragrance.”
The billowing smoke symbolizes the fiery tongues of Pentecost, when the Lord sent forth the Holy Spirit to His disciples “like tongues of fire.” When blessing the incense, the priest prays “We offer You, O Lord, this incense as a sweet spiritual fragrance; may it be acceptable at Your holy altar and we ask that You send down upon us in return the divine grace of the gift of Your Holy Spirit.” The faithful, when censed by the priest, slightly bow their heads as a sign of acceptance of this grace.
The censer is suspended by four chains with twelve bells, symbolizing the four evangelists and the twelve apostles respectively. The base of the censer symbolizes the human nature of Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mother. The embers symbolize the fire of divinity, representing the burning bush of the Old Testament that was burning but not consumed. The fire itself symbolizes the Divine Love as spiritual fire burning in the heart of every believer.