Friday 27 December 2013

C is for Censer and Censing

The Censer and Censing

A censer is an incense burner. In Greek it is called a θυμιατήρι. This elaborate container is suspended on 20-25 cm chains with a flat base so it can be set down on a table. The lid has holes so that, when granulated incense is placed on the hot coals burning in its bowl and the lid closed, fragrant smoke emerges and perfumes the air.

The incense now used in the Orthodox church is usually a mixture, but it always includes frankincense, the gum resin from a plant which, when burned exudes an aromatic odor. Frankincense which mean pure incense in Latin is called  Livani (λιβάνι) in Greek. It comes from a hardy, not to say scraggly, tree and in ancient times was a source of enormous wealth for Arabian countries like present day Yemen (then known as  Arabia Felix).

Its resin looks like small white nuggets and they were once valued on a par with gold.


Incense was burned in Phoenicia, Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt, in fact, in all Old Testament lands both in temples and in homes. In Yemen today, offering the aroma for a guest’s delight is still a social norm.
  Entire economies were based on its trade long before Christianity came on the scene. It is no accident that the Three Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, another aromatic gum resin, as gifts to the newborn Jesus. They were the traditional gifts offered to royalty at the time.

Censing in the Church Today

The first mention of censing as it is done today is as late as the 900s.  It is possible that the first censers used were not portable but steady stands placed in the church. The subject of when practices like censing became standard is opaque, to say the least, but incense use was well documented in Orthodoxy as early as the 500s. (Many Orthodox practices which began one way and developed over time, are perceived in retrospect as always having existed.)

There are rules:  A Deacon usually does the censing, or the priest if a deacon is not present. Only a deacon, priest, or bishop is allowed to cense. It is done by holding the censer suspended on its chains and swinging it in the direction of the person or object being censed. All sides of the altar, the holy gifts, the clergy, the congregation, icons, and even the building itself are venerated in this way. Depending on the service, censing can be elaborate or more abbreviated.
 This aromatic smoke permeating the church is so much a part of an Orthodox service today that it is hard to remember that in the beginning its use was considered disgusting and pagan.
The Incense Ban
Christianity was declared the state religion long before the old gods had lost their hold on the majority of the population and incense, because of its popularity in pagan temples, became the victim of the Church’s battle to wipe out all vestiges of polytheistic worship.  In 380 the emperor Theodosius ordered that all places ‘reeking with the vapor of incense’ should be expropriated for use by the state, but the battle had been raging long before that. Rejecting its exotic scent was a very public way for the earliest Christians to tell the world that their new God was not at all like the old and Christians were often persecuted for refusing to offer incense to pagan idols.  When the balance swung in favor of Christianity, the incense ban caused the collapse of the economy of Southern Arabia; it had been that important.

With the Church triumphant, however, and paganism either stamped out or in decline, the traditional allure of incense proved to be too great and slowly its use crept back into Christian observance on pussy cat feet as did icons, another banned substance too popular to be ultimately resisted. It is even possible that on far flung corners of the empire, incense lamps had never gone out of use at all.

 Practices and traditions, if popular enough, have a way of either clinging to or percolating back into any ritual with their meaning suitably transformed to meet the new situation.

 A host of Old Testament quotes (and a few from the New) were used to bolster their conviction that incense was as pleasing to the One God as it had once been to the many. The fragrant smoke now represented the prayers of saints and the congregation rising to heaven (Psalm 141:2) and the sweetness left behind was the sweetness of the Holy Spirit  (Luke 1:10).

Even the fact that burning incense was a small holocaust (the incense is wholly consumed in the burning) attained symbolic status that became even more apt as the incense became a mixture of clay, resins, and crushed onyx. This became a burnt offering of all of the good things God had created on earth and their burning a symbol of the unimportance of all creatures before their Creator.

 An ancient Greek, could we conjure one up, would have no trouble at all understanding this symbolic gesture; holocausts were the ultimate sacrifice to pagan gods, the total destruction of the sacrifice, the ultimate honour.  Certain rituals are so rooted in human nature and need that they can and do exist in wildly different settings.

Preparing the censer, Wikipedia

Icons in the church are censed as a reminder of the continuous presence of heaven on earth. The Church censes her ministers, her bishops and priests, in order to honor in their person Christ, whom they represent and with whose sacred character they are clothed. The Church censes the faithful in order to honor in them the likeness to Christ which was imprinted upon them in Baptism. During funerals the bodies of the dead are also censed to honor the bodies which were made sacred by Baptism, and to beg God to receive the prayers and petitions offered for the repose of the departed souls. For that reason you see them lit in cemeteries.  

The Complex Symbolism of the Censer

Orthodoxy never hesitates to give even the simplest utensils multiple symbolic meaning, so it is not surprising that the elaborate censer has more than its share. The bowl containing the charcoal and aromatic resins have been likened to the body of the church or even the pregnant womb of Mary containing the Divine fire. Another interpretation sees it as the burning coals of Christian Faith. The following I conned not quite word for word from Wikipedia because it is so well put:
Each of the four chains attached to the bowl have three bells – twelve in all – representing the twelve disciples of Christ. The four chains represent the four gospels, the three that hold the bowl the Trinity and the one holding the lid, the Oneness of God. The obvious potential meaning of gold and precious inlays I will not labour.
Suffice it to say that golden censers with all symbols represented, do not come cheap- as a glance at any one of the hundreds of websites selling them will prove.(Try

Where is it Stored?

The censer is kept in the sanctuary of the church, in the prothesis.  In our small local church, because of the cramped space, it was hanging at the ready from a nail on the wall beside the niche with the utensils for the Liturgy.

Censers are also used by devout Orthodox families in the home where simpler hand held censers can be used during morning and evening prayers.

In Greece incense is burned almost exclusively in a religious setting; its characteristic aroma is part of what that makes an Orthodox service such a unique, not to say a sensual, experience. 


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