Lord, I have cried unto Thee, Hearken unto me.
Attend to the voice of my supplication, when I cry unto Thee.
Hearken unto me, O Lord.
Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee,
The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
Hearken unto me, O Lord.
- from Psalm 140, sung at Vespers (the Kyrie ekekraksa)
For two thousand years, the Church has chanted these psalm verses every day at Vespers, and for nearly a thousand years before that, the Church of the Old Testament, the Israelites, chanted them at the evening offering of incense in the Temple at Jerusalem, and in the daily prayers of the synagogue. This verse, like many others in the Holy Scriptures, indicates the central role that INCENSE has in the true worship of God.
Do we offer incense at home as well as in Church?
YES! It is important to realize that not only do we offer incense in Church, but we also offer incense in our homes, to sanctify our homes and daily activities, to lift up our minds to God, to calm family members when they are upset by problems and disagreements, and to drive off the influence of demons.
If you talk with an older person who grew up in a pious household in Greece, he can tell you how the frequent censing (livanizi) of the home affects one's spiritual attitude and mental well-being. It is traditional that the head of the house - the father, or the mother of the family when the father is not home - cense the house daily, indeed three times daily - morning, noon, and evening. This creates a holy, sanctified atmosphere of peace and prayer in the home, lifting up the minds of the family members to God, to the Mother of God, to the saints, to the life of Paradise where our true life is and of which our home is to be both an image and a portal.
If we cannot manage to cense several times a day, we can certainly manage to cense our homes once a day, either before we go off to school and work, or at the end of the day, before we retire. The important thing is to get started!
What does the incense symbolize?
Incense, like many symbolic things and actions of our faith, has several layers of meaning and purpose. The meaning of the incense is summarized beautifully by the prayer the priest says in the altar every time he blesses the incense when the altar server brings him the censer:
Incense we offer unto Thee, O Christ our God, as an odor of spiritual fragrance. Receiving it upon Thy most heavenly altar, send down upon us in return the grace of Thine All-Holy Spirit. (from the Ieratikon - the Priest's Service Book).
What does one need?
You need three items: a hand censer (thimiato), charcoals or charcoal dust (karvounakia), and incense (livani). Our church bookstore at St. Spyridon carries all of these things. Ask the priest or a "veteran" parishioner how to light the coals and how much incense to use. Once you get started with this holy habit, you will never want to stop - when you don't do it, you will really miss it!
How exactly does one cense the house?
After the incense is "going," we take the hand censer and make the sign of the cross with it over the icons in each room, starting with our family ikonostasio. We can also make the cross in the four directions (East, South, West, North, East) of each room; at night, we can also make the cross over the beds in the bedrooms before we retire, or over our children after they are in bed. Traditionally we say the psalm Eleison me, o Theos ("Have mercy on me, O God…" - Psalm 50) as we cense. If we have not memorized this psalm (which is a good thing to get started on, by the way!), we can say the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me), or any favorite psalms or Church hymns we know. The important thing is to perform the censing, with prayer.