Since the very beginning, the right worship of God has always involved incense.
From before Israel’s foundations, to the ministry of the temple, to the earliest days of the apostolic Church, incense has continued to be an important, prophetic, and transformative aspect of our heavenly worship.
It’s is important to worship because incense is a reminder of the spiritual and reasonable sacrifice we offer in Christ at every Divine Liturgy. While the smoke of incense and burnt offerings (as done in both the tabernacle and temple) was a reminder of death, the pure and sweet aroma of incense in our churches—as in heaven—is a reminder of our Lord’s triumph over death and the bloodless worship we now offer. And this is a worship offered both in and through the risen Christ, for he is “the Offerer and the Offered, the One who receives and is distributed.”
Incense also draws us more closely to God through the use of our bodily senses. The familiar smell of an Orthodox church building or worship service becomes more pronounced over time, acting as a sort of “calling card” and reminder for those initiated that they have come home.
In stark contrast to other, later forms of worship, Hugh Wybrew notes how Orthodox worship demands a participation of our entire bodies:
The use of the sense of sight in Orthodox worship is only one aspect of the way in which the Liturgy and other services draw the whole person into the prayer of the Church. All the senses and the entire body are involved. In front of the icons people light candles. The invariable use of incense at all services appeals to their sense of smell. Through their hearing music makes its appeal to them, for services are always sung or chanted, never read with the speaking voice. Icons, vestments, and vessels may be touched and kissed; worshippers may be anointed or given blessed bread or other food to eat. They use their bodies as they cross themselves at different moments in services, and bow or even prostrate themselves at appropriate moments. —The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite, p. 177
In this description for an unfamiliar audience, Wybrew explains that Orthodox worship is not a strictly “inward” affair, emphasizing thought, ideas, or mere inspiration. Rather, the experience of Orthodox worship is one of lighting candles, eating and drinking, burning incense, hearing the Gospel, and making prostrations. This holistic worship requires an active participation on the part of everyone present—both clergy and laity. It is not monergistic or “automatic,” but rather involves the whole self in a prayerful, reverent, dedicated, and synergistic experience.
From the standpoint of anti-material dualism—more akin to gnosticism than traditional Christianity—the Reformation led to the elimination of most forms of “matter” and physical participation in worship. And in this iconoclastic quest for an invisible worship, something vital was lost: a connection with the world around us that points to our God “up above,” as well as the hosts of heaven and the innumerable saints—the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1)—all around us. For God has created all things out of nothing, and this creation is very good; he became man and was crucified for us in his physical body; and he is everywhere present, fulfilling all things, the treasury of good things and the giver of life. God the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), and to deny the goodness of his creation—a creation deified in his bodily resurrection and presented back to us—is to deny Christ himself (2 John 7).
The scriptures themselves paint a picture of worship that is both visible and invisible, with a harmony between that which is in our hearts and that which is done with our physical bodies. We recite our prayers to the Lord, and this rises before him as incense (Psalm 140:2 LXX). We lift our hearts up to God as we also lift up our hands (Lam. 3:41). Instead of drawing a sharp dichotomy between the inward and outward, Orthodox worship celebrates a balance of both, eliminating the temptation towards extremes on either side.
Therefore, as part of a calling to worship God on earth as he is eternally worshipped in heaven, the Orthodox Church offers incense in every service. This burnt offering is presented by the angels in the heavenly temple of God (e.g. Isa. 6; Rev. 8), and is prophesied to occur on earth “among the Gentiles” (Mal. 1:11); that is, among the nations in the churches of the new covenant.
The right worship of God has always involved incense.