The use of incense in the ancient world was common, especially in religious rites where it was used to keep demons away. Herodotus, the Greek historian, recorded that it was popular among the Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians.
Incense in the Judaic-Christian liturgical tradition goes back – scholars say perhaps as early as the 900’s B.C. – to the Temple worship in Jerusalem, being one of the costly offerings sacrificed to YAHWEH there. Its use was theologically integral to the liturgy, not decorative.
Some scholars believe that the Revelation 8.3-5 reference to incense in the New Testament indicates its liturgical use in the earliest decades of the Christian Church. However, the first clear documentation of incense in the young Church’s liturgy comes with the public freedom granted the previously persecuted and illegal Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in A.D. 311. Like its use in the Temple, incense was theologically integral to Christian liturgy, not decorative.
The first specifically Christian liturgical theological account of incense was of the funeral procession of St Peter of Alexandria in A.D. 311. There incense was used not for sacrifice but to honor (its purpose in ancient Roman culture) the body of the deceased. It was a public theological statement that, unlike popular Roman belief that death ended human existence, the Church taught the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ.
The Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of Rome in A.D. 313 in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to shore up the declining Empire. Therefore he insisted that the clergy be, act like, dress like, and receive the symbolic honors exclusively accorded, powerful Roman officials whose pronouncements commanded obedience. Among officials’ highly visible symbolic honors was having incense carried before them and being publicly censed. In its liturgy, however, the Christian Church not only censed the clergy, the Altar, and the Gospel Book (which represented Christ) but also censed everyone gathered and their offering. In the ancient Roman world this was a radical act which declared that all the People of God are equally significant in the Body of Christ, a fundamental and very counter-cultural liturgical theological statement.
After Constantine’s division of the Empire into Eastern and Western administrative units and then the fall of the Western half in A.D. 476, the Church de facto began two separate lines of cultural and liturgical development (which tragically became de jure in 1054). The Eastern Churches remained rooted in the theological and liturgical tradition of the Patristic (Early Christian) Church. In continental Europe, however, under Germanic domination, the Western Church developed in the Middle Ages a very different liturgical tradition and theological emphasis.
In Eastern liturgy – like the Patristic Church – incense continued to be an integral part of the Liturgical Theology of all celebrations of the Eucharist without exception. In the West, however, it became primarily a decorative element which was rubrically restricted to Solemn (“full”: full number of liturgical ministers, full ceremonial, etc.) liturgies as another means of making them “special.”
We do not know exactly when the use of incense was introduced into our Badarak or other liturgical rites. At the time of the early Church, the Jews continued to use incense in their own Temple rituals, so it would be safe to conclude that the Christians would have adapted its usage for their own rituals.
In the liturgies of Ss. James and Mark, which in their present form originate in the fifth century, the use of incense is mentioned.
The purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of purification and sanctification. For example, in the Eastern Rites at the beginning of Badarak, the altar and sanctuary area were incensed while Psalm 50, the "Miserere," was chanted invoking the mercy of God. The smoke symbolizes the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven: the Psalmist prays, "Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice" (Psalm 141). Incense also creates the ambiance of heaven: The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly worship as follows: "Another angel came in holding a censer of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God's holy ones. From the angel's hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God's people."
In the General Instruction of the Armenian Badarak incense may be used during the entrance procession; at the beginning of Badarak, to incense the altar; at the procession and proclamation of the Gospel; at the offertory, to incense the offerings, altar, priest and people; and at the elevation of the Sacred Host and chalice of Precious Blood after the consecration. The priest may also incense the Crucifix and the Paschal Candle. During funeral Service, the deacon may incense the coffin, both as a sign of honor to the body of the deceased which became the temple of the Holy Spirit at Baptism and as a sign of the faithful’s prayers for the deceased rising to God.
The usage of incense adds a sense of solemnity and mystery to the Badarak. The visual imagery of the smoke and the smell remind us of the transcendence of the Badarak which links heaven with earth, and allow us to enter into the presence of God.