From Old Testament times believers have burned incense as an offering when worshiping God. The ancient Temple in Jerusalem even had priests whose sole duty was to keep the censer burning 24 hours a day. Ancient pagan kings were often escorted with large fans of peacock feathers and burning incense when entering their palaces. Early Christians took both these symbols for their worship in recognition of Christ as their sovereign King and Lord.
To this day the Orthodox Church uses incense in most of her services, and large circular fans, reminiscent of the peacock fans of ancient times, are held over the Gospel book during the proclamation of God’s Word during the celebrations of the Divine Liturgy.
As a young man attending my very first Orthodox liturgy I was struck by the use of incense. The words of the psalmist King David, “Let my prayer arise as incense before thee,” [are] chanted during every celebration of vespers during the censing of the temple. During every service where there is a great censing of the whole church, the priest or deacon censes the frescoes and icons as windows into eternity, as the incense wafts upward as an offering of the people of God. The people are also censed by the priest in recognition of their having been created in the image and likeness of their creator, God.
Incense is so central in Christian worship that it is even used in the worship of the domestic church, where the family gathers in prayer around their own icons, reading the Scriptures together and offering their family prayers to the Lord: “Let my prayer arise as incense before thee.”