Various Rituals in the Orthodox Church
A Look into some of the Rituals in the Orthodox Church
1. Veneration of the Cross
2. Facing the East
3. The sanctuary and the altar
5. Lights and candles
6. Pictures and icons
(1) Veneration of the Cross
One of the differences between Orthodoxy and Protestantism is
the Orthodox’s wonderful veneration of the cross. Our brethren the
Protestants do not sign themselves with the sign of the cross before
or after prayer, and say: “In the name of the Father and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.” They do not sign food with the sign of the
cross before eating, nor do they use the cross to bless people or
Our brethren the Protestants are content that they believe in the
cross in their hearts without using it. Until recently, they were not
raising crosses on their churches. Many of them do not wear
crosses and none of them hold crosses in their hands. Also, they do
not celebrate the feasts of the cross nor do they make any
processions holding crosses whilst singing hymns and praises.
They neither kiss the cross nor take a blessing from it.
Now we will try to explain why Orthodoxy gives such
importance to the cross and we shall see that making the sign of the
cross is beneficial, useful and in accordance with the teaching of
the Holy Bible.
(1) The emphasis of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross
Since the commencement of the Lord’s ministry, during His
teaching and prior to His crucifixion, He laid great emphasis on the
cross. He says: “And he who does not take his cross and follow
after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:38) and “If anyone
desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his
cross, and follow Me” (Matt.16: 24); (Mark.8: 34). In His
conversation with the rich young man, He said to him: ‘Go your
way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor… and come, take
up the cross, and follow Me’ (Mark.10: 21). He also says: “And
whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My
disciple” (Lk.14: 27).
(2) The cross was the core of the ministry of the angels
and the Apostles
An important point is that the angel who proclaimed the
Lord’s resurrection said to the women: “…you seek Jesus who
was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said”
(Matt.28: 5,6). Thus the angel called the Lord “who was
crucified”, although He had already resurrected. Thus the title
‘crucified’ continued to be attributed to the Lord.
Our fathers the Apostles emphasised the Lord’s crucifixion in
their preaching. In preaching to the Jews, St. Peter said:
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God
has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and
Christ” (Acts2: 36). St. Paul says: “..we preach Christ
crucified” (1Cor.1: 23), although the Lord’s crucifixion was
considered “a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness”.
The Apostle considered the cross the essence of Christianity
and says: “For I determined not to know anything among you
except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1Cor.2: 2). He means
that the cross is the only subject he wants to know.
(3) The cross was the object of the Apostles’ glory
St. Paul the Apostle says: “But God forbid that I should
glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal.6: 14).
If we ask him the secret behind these words, he will continue
and say: “by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to
the world” (Gal.6: 14).
(4) When we make the sign of the cross, we remember
many of its divine and spiritual meanings
We remember God’s love for us, who for the sake of our
salvation accepted to die for us: “All we like sheep have gone
astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the
Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is.53: 6). When
we make the sign of the cross, we remember “The Lamb of
God who takes away the sin of the world” (John.1: 29), and
that “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for
ours only but also for the whole world” (IJohn.2: 2).
(5) When we make the sign of the cross, we profess that
we belong to the Crucified
Those who take the cross only by its spiritual meaning inside the
heart without showing any manifest sign do not reveal this
belonging openly which we proclaim in making the sign of the
cross, in wearing and kissing the cross in front of all, in engraving
it on our wrists and in upraising it on our places of worship. By
doing all these we are merely proclaiming our belief openly. We
are not ashamed of Christ’s cross in front of people but we glory in
it, are called by it, celebrate its feasts and cling tort so that, even
without us talking, our appearance professes our belief.
(6) Man is not only spirit and mind but he also has
corporeal senses which should sense the cross through the
Not all people are of the same spiritual level and do not need
the senses for their spiritual contemplation. The senses are
nourished by all the above-mentioned means and are not
confined within themselves but they transfer the effects they
receive to the mind and the spirit. The mind by itself might not
remember the cross or might not remember it much. But when
it perceives the cross before it, through the senses, it remembers
all the divine and spiritual feelings connected with the cross and
the Crucified. Thus we worship God spiritually, intellectually
and physically. All these strengthen each other.
(7) We do not make the sign of the cross in silence, but
we say: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of
the Holy Spirit. One God. Amen”
Therefore every time we make the sign of the cross, we
profess our belief in the Holy Trinity who is the One God
forever. Amen. Thus we are given the chance of constantly
remembering the Holy Trinity.
(8) In making the sign of the cross, we profess our belief
in the Incarnation and the Redemption
We make the sign of the cross from up downwards and from
left to right. We remember that God descended from heaven to
earth and transferred people from the left to the right; from
darkness to light; from death to life. How numerous are the
contemplation we think of with our minds and feel with our
hearts when we make the sign of the cross!
(9) Making the sign of the cross is a religious teaching to
our children and to others
He who makes the sign of the cross when he prays, when he
enters the church, when he eats, when he goes to bed and all the
time, is the one who remembers the cross. This remembrance is
beneficial spiritually and is Biblically requested. It also teaches
people, especially little children, that Christ was crucified.
(10) In making the sign of the cross, we proclaim the
Lord’s death for us, according to His commandment
This is the commandment of the Lord: to proclaim His death
(which is for our redemption) till He comes (1Cor.11: 26).
Every time we make the sign of the cross we remember His
death and will remember Him till He comes.
We also remember the Lord in the Eucharist but this
Sacrament is not celebrated constantly whereas we can make
the sign of the cross at any time, and thus remember the Lord’s
death for us.
(11) In making the sign of the cross, we remember that the
penalty of sin is death
That was why Christ died. We were “dead in trespasses”
(Eph.2: 5), but Christ died for us on the Cross and gave us life. On
the Cross He paid the price and said to the Father: “Father, forgive
(12) In making the sign of the cross we remember God’s
love for us
We remember that the Cross is a sacrifice of love. “For God
so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that
whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting
life” (John.3: 16). We remember that “God demonstrates His
own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ
died for us… we were reconciled to God through the death of
His Son” (Rom.5: 8,10). In the cross we remember God’s love
toward us, because “Greater love has no one than this, than to
lay down one’s life for his friends” (John.15: 13).
(13) We make the sign of the cross because it gives us
St. Paul the Apostle felt the power of the cross and said:
“But God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our
Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me,
and I to the world” (Gal.6: 14) and “For the message of the
cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who
are being saved it is the power of God” (1Cor.1: 18). We
notice that he did not say that the crucifixion is the power of
God but that the mere word ‘cross’ is the power of God.
Therefore, when we make the sign of the cross and when we
mention the cross, we are filled with power because we
remember that, through the cross, the Lord trod upon death,
granted life to all people, defeated and overcame Satan.
(14) We make the sign of the cross because Satan fears it
All Satan’s efforts ever since Adam’s creation and until the
end of ages, came to naught on the Cross. God paid the price
by His blood. He effaced with His blood the sins of all people
who believe and obey Him. Therefore whenever Satan sees the
cross, he trembles, remembering his great defeat and the loss of
his strivings, is disgraced and retreats.
Thus the children of God use the sign of the cross because it
is the sign of victory and the power of God. They are filled with
power within, and the enemy trembles without.
The lifting up of the serpent in the past, which was a cure for
people and salvation from death, resembles the lifting up of the
Lord of glory on the Cross. It also resembles the sign of the
cross in its efficacies (John.3: 14).
(15) In making the sign of the cross , we receive a
The whole world was cursed and under the penalty of death.
But on the Cross the Lord carried all our curses to give us the
blessing of reconciliation with God (Rom.5: 10), the blessing of
the new pure life; the blessing of membership in His body. All
the graces of the New Testament are derived from the cross.
That is why the clergymen use the cross in giving the blessing,
signifying that the blessing does not come from them but from
the Cross of the Lord who entrusted it to them to use in giving
the blessing. In addition, they use the cross because they derive
their priesthood from the Priesthood of the Crucified. All the
blessings of the New Testament sprang from the Lord’s Cross
and from its efficacious.
(16) The cross is used in all the holy Sacraments in
All the Sacraments sprang from the merit of Christ’s blood
on the Cross. Had it not been for the Cross, we would never
have been worthy to approach God as His children in the
Sacrament of Baptism, we would never have been worthy to
partake of His Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the
Eucharist (1Cor.11: 26), nor would we have been able to enjoy
the graces of any of the Church Sacraments.
(17) We exalt the cross to remember our fellowship with
We remember the words of St. Paul the Apostle: “I have
been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ
lives in me” (Gal.2: 20) and “… that I may know Him and the
power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings,
being confirmed to His death” (Phil.3: 10). Here, we ask
ourselves: When can we enter into the fellowship of the Lord’s
sufferings and pray with Him?
We also remember the Penitent Thief who was crucified with
the Lord and deserved to be with Him in Paradise. Probably he
was singing in Paradise the song of St. Paul: “I have been
crucified with Christ”.
Our aspiration is to ascend to the cross with Christ. The
cross is our glory whenever it comes into contact with our
(18) We venerate the cross because it is the Father’s
The Father received Christ on the Cross as a pleasing sin
offering and also as a burnt offering. He was “a pleasing
aroma to the Lord” (Lev.1: 9,13,17). Concerning this, the
Prophet Isaiah said: “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him”
The Lord Jesus Christ satisfied the Father all His life on
earth. But He entered into the fullness of this satisfaction on
the Cross when He “became obedient to the Point of death,
even the death of the cross” (Phil 2:8).
Every time we see the cross, we remember the perfect
obedience and the perfect submission so that we may resemble
Christ in His obedience: to the point of death.
The Cross which was the pleasing object of the Father, was
also the pleasing object of the Crucified Son, about whom it is
written: “… who for the joy that was set before Him endured
the cross, despising the shame” (Heb.12: 2). Thus the full joy
of Christ was in the Cross. May we be like Him.
(19) In the cross we go forth to Christ outside the camp,
bearing His reproach (Heb. 13: 13)
Christ’s reproach is His crucifixion and His sufferings. In
making the sign of the cross, we relive the feelings of the Holy
Week and remember what is said about Moses the Prophet:
“…esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the
treasures in Egypt” (Heb. 11: 26).
(20) We carry Christ’s cross because it reminds us of His
The Holy Bible says about the end of the world and the
coming of the Lord: “Then the sign of the Son of Man will
appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will
mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds
of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt.24: 30).
Therefore let us venerate the cross, the sign of the Son of Man,
now on earth as long as we expect to see it in heaven when He
comes on the clouds of heaven at His great Coming.
(2) Facing the East
Our churches are built facing eastwards. We pray facing
toward the East because the East has become a symbol to us
since it directs our hearts to many precious contemplation. It
also has an important place in God’s thought. Since God gives
importance to the East then let us also give it importance.
(1) Before God created man, He created the East as a source
of light for him, and God saw that the light was good. God
created the sun on the fourth day and man on the sixth (Gen. 1).
The rising of the sun is a symbol of Christ and His light. The
Lord is called the ‘Sun of Righteousness’, and it is written:
“…the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His
wings” (Mal.4: 2).
(2) Before God created man, He planted the Garden of Eden
in the East for him and then placed him there. He also planted
the tree of life in the Garden where man first lived before sin.
The Garden of Eden symbolises Paradise to which we aspire
(Gen.2: 8). Man’s facing eastward has become a symbol of his
aspiration to Paradise of which he was deprived and a symbol of
his aspiration to the tree of life.
(3) The Lord Jesus Christ was born in an eastern Country.
The Magi saw His star in the East (Matt.2: 2). The star was a
symbol of Divine guidance. When the Magi followed it, it led
them to the Lord. This is a beautiful contemplation!
(4) The Lord Jesus Christ was born in an eastern Country,
His star appeared in the East and His mother the Virgin Mary
was likened to a gate facing toward the East (Ez.44: 1,2).
(5) Salvation came to the world from the East. Christ was
crucified in an eastern Country where His blood was shed for
the remission of sins of the whole world.
(6) Christianity and the Church began in the East. Jerusalem
is in the East. It is the Country of the Great King where the first
Church in the whole world was established. The Gospel spread
from the East to the whole world. In the East the blood of the
first Christian martyr was shed.
(7) The Holy Bible mentions several times that the glory of
God is in the East. It is written in the Book of Isaiah:
“Therefore in the east give glory to the Lord” (Is.24: 15). In
the Book of Ezekiel, there is a prophecy about the coming of
Christ in His glory from the East. It is written: “And behold,
the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east.
His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth
shne with His glory” (Ez.43: 2).
(8) Therefore most theologians say that the Second Coming
will be from the East. In the same manner He went into heaven
He will come back (Acts 1: 11). In Zechariah’s prophecy, it is
written: “And in that day ; His feet will stand on the Mount of
Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east” (Zech.14: 4).
(9) The East is an appealing subject and evokes splendid
memories. In the Book of Ezekiel, the Prophet writes about
rivers of life in the East (Ez.47: 1-9). And in the Second Book
of Kings, it is written that the East is the “arrow of the Lord’s
deliverance” (2Kin.13: 17). Also, in the Book of Isaiah, it is
written: “Therefore in the east give glory to the Lord” (Is.24:15).
(10) The remembrance of the East has a great effect on the
heart; it has a spiritual effect on the soul. I admire Daniel the
Prophet when he defied pagan worship: He went into the upper
room, opened the window which faced Jerusalem, and knelt
down to pray. It is true that God is everywhere, but facing
Jerusalem in the East has a profound meaning and a strong
effect on the heart. The remembrance of certain places
awakens sacred emotions in the heart.
(11) Our worship is not worship with the intellect only. The
senses also act; they are affected and they affect the feelings of
the soul. An example to illustrate this: When we pray we look
up although God is everywhere. But looking upwards evokes
in our hearts spiritual feelings which give more depth to our
prayer. The same applies to facing the East.
The Lord Himself, on more than one occasion, looked up,
although the Father is in Him and He is in the Father. But
looking upwards has a certain significance.
(12) When we face the East, we are in fact facing the altar
which lies eastward because the Sacrifice has Its spiritual place
in our hearts and Christ our Passover was a Sacrifice in the
(13) In the Baptismal Service, in a symbolic way, the
baptised and his godparent face westward to renounce Satan
and then eastward to recite the Creed. Thus the baptised feels
in Baptism that he is transferred from west to east, that is, from
darkness to light.
(14) We ask: Why do our brethren the Protestants fight
against facing toward the East although it carries spiritual
meanings, sacred contemplation and memories textproved from the
Holy Bible and involves no dogmatic error to stir the sacred zeal?
(3) The Sanctuary and the Altar
There is neither a sanctuary nor an altar in Protestant
churches. The reason for this is more serious: There is no
Sacrifice. We shall discuss the subject of the Sacrifice when we
come to the Sacraments of Eucharist and Priesthood. Now we
will confine our discussion to the altar.
(1) In the Old Testament there are numerous passages about
the altar. But our brethren the Protestants think that the altar
was merely a symbol of Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross, and has
now terminated. Therefore, in our discussion with them, we
have to present text-proofs from the New Testament.
(2) St. Paul the Apostle says: “We have an altar from which
those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat”
(Heb.13: 10). The tabernacle is the Tent of Meeting or the old
Sanctuary. St. John Chrysostom comments on this, saying: “St.
Paul the Apostle turned from the symbolic meaning to the
actual meaning… We now have the authority to partake of the
Holy Blood which was the authority of the priest only.”
(3) There is a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah the Prophet about
an altar in the midst of the land of Egypt. The prophet says: “In
that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land
of Egypt. Then the Lord will be known to Egypt, and the
Egyptians will know the Lord in that day, and will make sacrifice
and offering” (Is. 19: 19,21).
Of course, the altar referred to here is the altar of the New
Testament in the Christian Era, because the Jews could not offer
sacrifices in a Gentile land, nor would the Egyptians have allowed
them to do so. Thus the appeal directed to Pharaoh at the time of
Moses and Aaron was: “Let My people go, that they may serve
Me” (Ex.8: 20). Yet Pharaoh refused to let “the people go to
sacrifice to the Lord” (Ex.8: 29). After the Plague of Flies, when
Pharaoh gave his first promise, he said: “I will let you go, that you
may sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness” (v.28). It is
understood from these verses that the Jews could not offer a
sacrifice in Egypt.
So when did the Egyptians know the Lord? When did they
begin to have an altar and offer sacrifices to the Lord?
Undoubtedly, it was in the Christian Era. This is an explicit proof
of the existence of altars in Christianity to offer sacrifices on.
(4) God willed that the word ‘altar’ be fixed in the minds and
hearts of people, therefore He mentions it more than once in the
Book of Revelation which was written at the end of the first
century, after the martyrdom of the Apostles and the disciples of
Christ. St. John the Evangelist says: “Then another angel, having
a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. And he was given
much incense” (Rev.8: 3). He also says: “I saw under the altar the
souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the
testimony which they held” (Rev.6: 9).
(5) The altar will continue to exist as long as the words of the
Divine Inspiration: “the Body and Blood of the Lord” (1Cor.11:27)
remain before us. As long as there is Blood, then there should
be an altar, and by necessity, a sanctuary to contain it.
We shall discuss this subject in detail, God willing, when we
discuss the subject of the Holy Sacrifice and the clergyman who
Our brethren the Protestants do not use incense or censers,
considering them part of the Old Testament worship which
were mere symbols and have now terminated. Here we would
like to display the history of incense in the past and present and
see whether incense is a symbol or an independent spiritual
(1) The Lord said to Moses: “You shall make an altar to
burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood” (Ex.30: 1).
Here the Lord presents us an important point: The incense was
considered a sacrifice in itself, offered on an altar called the
altar of incense.
(2) The Lord gave great importance to the altar of incense.
He commanded that it be overlaid on all sides with gold, have a
horn of gold, be carried on two rings overlaid with gold and be
placed before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony
where He would meet with Moses (Ex.30: 3-6).
(3) The incense was conditioned to be ‘sweet incense’. The
Lord says: “Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every
morning” (Ex.30: 7). And also at twilight “he shall burn
incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout
your generations” (Ex.30: 8).
The spices for making the sweet incense are mentioned in
(Ex.30: 34). It is said that this incense “shall be to you holy for
the Lord” (Ex.30: 37). Moreover, “It shall be most holy to
you… you shall not make any for yourselves, according to its
composition” (Ex.30: 36,37).
The phrase ‘sweet incense’ is repeated on many occasions in
the Holy Bible: (Ex.25: 6); (Ex.37: 29); (Lev.16: 12). So
incense represented a fragrant perfume ascending before the
(4) Some people are mistaken and say that incense was
presented with burnt offerings to absorb their smell. And as
there are no animal burnt offerings now, incense is subsequently
cancelled. This interpretation is unsound because incense was a
form of worship independent in itself. It had its own special
altar different from the altar of burnt offerings. It had its own
rites in the way of offering it. It was meant and considered as a
prayer in itself and not as a symbol of another thing.
(5) We notice that when the Lord sent the plague on the
Israelites, Aaron the chief priest, upon Moses’ command, took
his censer, put incense in it and burnt it with fire from the altar
to intercede for the people before God. When he ran into the
midst of the assembly and offered the incense, the plague
ceased. The Lord accepted the incense from Aaron as a prayer
(Num.16: 44-48) as though it were a sacrifice.
We notice that Aaron did not offer a sacrifice for the
Israelites, but incense alone. The incense was not offered to
absorb the smell of a burnt offering but it was an offering to
make atonement for the people (Num. 16: 46,47).
(6) Because of the importance of incense, only priests were
allowed to offer it. So incense is in a higher position than prayer
because prayer can be raised by any individual to the Lord.
When Korah, Dathan and Abiram dared to offer incense, the
earth opened its mouth and swallowed them with all their
belongings. So they went down to the pit alive (Num.16:
31,32). This happened not because they offered a sacrifice, but
because they offered incense, even though they were of the tribe
(7) As incense was so important, it was offered in golden
censers as is written in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb.9: 4)
and as is said about the twenty-four priests who had golden
bowls full of incense (Rev.5: 8).
(8) In the Book of the Prophet Malachi, there is a prophecy
about the continuation of the offering of incense and that it is
not limited to the Jewish Era. The Lord says: “For from the
rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be
great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be
offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be
great among the nations” (Mal.1: 11). Of course, worship
among the Gentiles did not happen except in the Era of
Christianity. Thus the Lord has included incense among the
forms of Christian worship.
(9) There are two examples in the New Testament showing
the Divine concern about incense, and both are written in the
Book of Revelation:
(a) About the twenty-four priests, it is written: “and the
twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a
harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers
of the saints” (Rev.5: 8).
(b) St. John the Visionary says: “Then another angel,
having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. And he
was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers
of all the saints upon the golden altar, which was before the
throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the
saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand”
(10) In commenting on the expression “the smoke of the
incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God”,
we say that the whole life of the Church is incense. The Church
is resembled to incense in the Book of the Song of Solomon, in
which the Divine Inspiration says: “Who is this coming out of
the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and
frankincense, with all the merchant‘s fragrant powders?”
(Song 3: 6)
(11) One of the important situations in the history of incense
in the life of the saints is that the angel of the Lord appeared to
Zacharias the priest on the right side of the altar of incense
while he was burning incense in his lot (Lk.1: 8-11). This is
proof of the sanctity of the place and the sanctity of the work of
offering incense. This holy occasion was worthy to be
associated with a Divine revelation.
It is clear from the incident of Zacharias’ burning incense in
his lot that offering incense was a separate work in itself; it was
not connected with the offering of a sacrifice or burnt offering.
(12) Because incense is important in Christianity,
frankincense (which is a component of incense) was one of the
gifts offered by the Magi to Christ. It was a symbol of His
Priesthood and a profession from the Magi that He is a Priest,
in the same way that gold was a symbol of His Kingdom and
myrrh a symbol of His sufferings.
(13) Incense has numerous meanings, which satisfy the
senses and nourish the soul. Not all those who attend church
are of a profound spiritual level and deep thought. Children, for
example, who do not apprehend much from the sermon or the
readings of the Holy Bible or the prayers, are spiritually affected
through their senses by the incense, candles and icons which
serve as spiritual lessons for them, uplifting them to a spiritual
atmosphere. The same applies to the uninformed and
superficial believers who have no depth of knowledge and have
not studied theological books.
Spiritual meanings and contemplation of incense
(14) The first lesson we learn from incense is the Lord’s
teaching: “…he who loses his life for My sake will find it”
(Matt.10: 39). An example of this is the particle of incense, which
burns and burns until it becomes perfumed pillars of smoke. You
look for it in the censer as a particle of incense, but you do not find
it because it offered itself as a burnt offering to God.
Burnt offerings are not only of sacrifices but also of incense,
which the Holy Bible considers as a sacrifice to be offered on the
altar of incense. Incense teaches us a great lesson. How beautiful
it is when a man offers himself as a burnt offering to the Lord!
Every offering is outside the self but the offering of the self is the
greatest offering. Offering the self is represented by putting the
particle of incense in the fire. It is said that our God is a consuming
fire (Deut.4: 24). The saints were particles of incense put into the
Divine censer and were burnt by the love of God.
(15) The second lesson in incense is its constant ascent. The
burning incense does not accept to be kept down, but it rises to the
sky, stretches and spreads and never ceases to ascend and spread.
When you watch and follow it you cannot help raising your eyes to
the sky whether you wish to or not. That is why incense always
attracts people’s senses to above as if it is an arrow pointing
continually to heaven.
(16) A third lesson in incense is that it resembles the sweet
aroma. The Holy Bible conditions incense to be sweet incense.
Whoever smells the incense remembers that man’s life should be
a fragrant perfume before God. The Holy Bible says: “For we
are to God the fragrance of Christ… through us diffuses the
fragrance of His knowledge in every place” (2Cor.2: 15,14).
(17) One of the most magnificent contemplation of incense is
that it reminds us of the cloud or the dark cloud in which the
Lord appeared. The Lord says: “I will appear in the cloud
above the mercy seat” (Lev.16: 2). It is also written in the
Book of Leviticus: “…cloud of incense” (Lev.16: 13). It was
said about Aaron the chief priest: “Then he shall take a censer
full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, with
his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside
the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the
Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is
on the Testimony, lest he die” (Lev.16: 12,13).
In directing His people in the Old Testament, whether in the
Tabernacle or in the Sanctuary or in the Wilderness of Sinai,
God appeared in the cloud or in the smoke. His guidance to the
people in Sinai was in the form of an overshadowing cloud
during the day, representing God who was overshadowing
them. If the cloud moved, they knew that God was moving
them so they moved. If the cloud settled, they settled (Num.9:17).
Thus it is written: “And the cloud of the Lord was above
them by day when they went out from the camp” (Num.10: 34).
(18) When the Lord Jesus Christ came to Egypt it is said that
He came on a cloud (Is.19: 1). The cloud was a symbol of the
Virgin who was an ascending fragrant incense. In Christ’s
Second Coming, He will also come on the clouds (Matt.24: 30).
So clouds represent the presence of the Lord in the Old
Testament and in the New Testament.
(19) The incident of the Transfiguration is an example of God’s
presence in clouds. It is written that while the Lord Jesus
Christ was talking to the three disciples, “a cloud came and
overshadowed them; and they were fearful as they entered the
cloud. Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My
beloved Son. Hear Him!’ ” (Lk.9: 34,35)
(20) The Lord talked to Moses from a cloud. When the Lord
spoke to Moses, the Holy Bible says: “Then Moses went up into
the mountain, and a cloud covered the mountain. Now the
glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered
it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of
the midst of the cloud” (Ex.24: 15,16). The same happened
when the Lord spoke to the people of Israel from the
Tabernacle: the cloud and smoke were overshadowing the
(21) We see the same again in the consecration of Solomon’s
Temple. The Holy Bible says: “And it came to pass, when the
priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the
house of the Lord, so that the priests could not continue
ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord
filled the house of the Lord. Then Solomon spoke: ‘The Lord
said He would dwell in the dark cloud’ ”(1Kin.8: 10-12).
(22) Incense represents clouds or dark clouds reminding us
of God’s presence and the glory of God. It is written: “Clouds
and darkness surround Him” (Ps.97: 2). Therefore incense has
numerous spiritual meanings for whoever wishes to benefit from
it. It is a form of worship in itself. It was not connected with
the Old Testament sacrifices thus not necessitating its
termination with that of those sacrifices
(23) Lastly, we say that there is not one single verse in the
New Testament commanding the cancellation of incense: “He
who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the
churches” (Rev.2: 7).
(5) Lights and Candles
The Orthodox Church is characterised by its lights. We use
candles in our prayers, during the Bible reading, in front of the
icons of the saints, on the altar, in the sanctuary in general and in
front of the altar on its eastern side, and the church remains lighted
constantly. Our brethren the Protestants do not use any of these
rites despite their symbolic significance.
In this brief article we will discuss the subject of lights in the
church, the reason for using them and the spiritual meanings they
(1) The church itself is called in the Holy Bible the golden
lampstand. This is clear from the Book of Revelation. St. John the
Visionary saw the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of seven golden
lampstands and the Lord said to him: “…the seven lampstands
which you saw are the seven churches” (Rev.1: 20).
(2) The church resembles heaven because it is the house of
God or God’s dwelling place. This is nearly the expression used
about the first house of God. Jacob the Patriarch said: “How
awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of
God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (Gen.28: 17) Since the
church resembles heaven, it must have lights to illuminate it like
the stars of heaven.
(3) The lights in the church may represent the angels in
heaven or the angels whom Jacob saw in his vision ascending
and descending the ladder in Bethel (‘House of God’) (Gen.28:
12). The lights symbolise the angels because the angels are also
called angels of light (2Cor.11: 14).
(4) The lights of the church also symbolise the saints, to
whom the Lord says: “Let your light so shine before men”
(Matt.5: 16). On this occasion the Lord likens the saints to
lighted lamps put on lampstands (Matt.5: 15).
Also, the Holy Bible says: “the righteous will shine forth as
the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt.13: 43). And the
Lord Jesus Christ said to the Jews about John the Baptist as an
example of those righteous: “He was the burning and shining
lamp, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light”
(John.5: 35). Since the church is full of angels and saints then it
ought to be full of lights.
(5) Primarily the church ought to be filled with lights because
of God’s presence in it: God is Light (John.1: 5) and the Lord
Jesus Christ says of Himself: “I am the Light of the world”
(6) The church is lighted by lights after the pattern of the
Tabernacle and the Sanctuary. They were full of lights and their
lamps were never put out. The Lord commanded that the
lamps be lighted by pure olive oil under the supervision of
Aaron and his children as an everlasting statute. The Lord says:
“And you shall command the children of Israel that they bring
you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to cause the lamp to
burn continually. In the tabernacle of meeting, outside the veil,
which is before the Testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it
from evening until morning before the Lord. It shall be a
statute forever to their generations” (Ex.27: 20,21).
This is a Divine command, given by God who said on the
first day of creation: “ ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good” (Gen.1: 3,4).
(7) The lamps, which are lighted by oil, have a spiritual
meaning. The oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, It was used for
anointing, after which the Spirit of the Lord descended: When
Samuel anointed David, the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in
power (1Sam.16: 13). The Holy Bible also tells us about the
anointing from the Holy One (1John.2: 20,27).
Even the candles which we light in church are made of oil,
and the lamps in church are lighted by oil for the same symbolic
(8) We notice that the Lord commanded that lampstands be
made in His house, whether the Tabernacle or the Sanctuary.
The lamps and the lampstands were made of pure gold (Ex.25:
31); (Ex.37: 17); (2Chr.4: 20). All these are proof of God’s
concern about the existence of lights in His house.
(9) The lamps were lighted continually upon God’s
command. Extinguishing the lamps’ light or negligence in
lighting them were considered as treachery to the Lord and
deserved severe punishment. Concerning this, the Holy Bible
says: “For our fathers have trespassed and done evil in the
eyes of the Lord our God; they have forsaken Him, have turned
their faces away from the habitation of the Lord, and turned
their backs on Him. They have also shut up the doors of the
vestibule, put out the lamps, and have not burned incense…
therefore the wrath of the Lord fell upon Judah and Jerusalem,
and He has given them up to trouble, to astonishment”
(2Chr.29: 6-8). All these show us how God cares for lights in
(10) Lighting lamps has a special profound spiritual meaning.
It symbolises constant readiness, perpetual watchfulness and
preservation of the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart.
Concerning this readiness, the Lord Jesus Christ tells us: “Let
your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you
yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will
return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they
may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants
whom the master, when he comes, will find watching” (Lk.12:35).
The Lord Jesus Christ gives us the parable of the five wise
virgins whose lamps were burning whilst the lamps of the five
foolish virgins went out (Matt.25: 1-12).
The oil of the lamp symbolises the work of the Holy Spirit in
the heart. The constant burning symbolises the constant
watchfulness in keeping the heart tied to the work of the Holy
Spirit within it.
(11) What is said about individuals can also be said about the
whole church. When people see the lights in church they are
reminded of their duties in preserving the light inside them and
that their lamps should be lighted continually. They remember
that the church is one of the five wise virgins who kept their
(12) With regard to lighting candles during the Gospel
reading, this is undoubtedly better than reading the Gospel
without light. It reminds us of the verse: “Your word is a lamp
to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119), and also “The
commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Ps.19).
(13) The Early Church, ever since the Apostolic Era, has
given importance to lights and their symbols. The Book of Acts
tells us about the upper room from which St. Paul was
preaching after the breaking of the bread: “There were many
lamps… where they were gathered” (Acts 20: 8).
(14) The candles that we light before the saints’ icons remind
us that the saints were lights in their generations; they were like
candles, melting in order that their light might shine before
(6) Pictures and Icons
Our brethren the Protestants do not believe in the pictures
and icons in the Orthodox Church or in the statues in the
Catholic Church. They consider them against the second
commandment, in which the Lord says: “You shall not make for
yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is
in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in
the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or
serve them” (Ex.20: 4,5); (Deut.5: 8,9).
There was a war waged against icons in the 8th century in 726
A. D. during the time of Emperor Leo III. It continued for a few
centuries then calmed down. It was revived in Protestantism since
the 15th and 16th centuries and has remained among their beliefs
till this day. Some of our Protestant brethren consider icons as
remnants of paganism. They reproach Orthodoxy and Catholicism
for venerating icons, kissing them, lighting candles in front of them
and kneeling before them.
We will try to reply to all these points, showing the spiritual
benefits of icons and why the Church keeps them.
(1) In order to reply to the subject of icons, we must
consider the following:
(a) What does the verse, which our Protestant
brethren use imply? Why was this verse said and what is its
purpose? The reason behind our questioning is the Apostle’s
phrase “the letter kills” (2Cor.3: 6).
(b) What are the other verses which, if put beside this
verse, will complete its meaning and make us realise the spirit
and not the letter in the Lord’s commandment? We have
previously explained the danger of using one verse.
(2) What was God’s aim in banning images and statues? The
Lord’s aim is clear in His words: “You shall not bow down to
them nor serve them.” Therefore the commandment is not
broken if the purpose of using them is far from worship.
There is no doubt that this forbidding is one of the Lord’s
Ten Commandments. It was given in an era in which paganism
abounded and there was so much anxiety that the believers
might apostate that it was forbidden to engrave any stone, even
in ordinary buildings or in constructing the altar.
(3) We see that God Himself, who commanded the people
not to engrave any idol or form, ordered Moses in the incident
of the enormous snakes to “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on
a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he
looks at it, shall live” (Num.21: 8). So Moses did this and he
was not breaking the second commandment.
Moreover, the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that this act was
a pattern of His sacred cross. He says: “And as Moses lifted up
the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be
lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but
have eternal life” (John.3: 14,15).
(4) When the Lord ordered Moses to build the Ark of Covenant,
He asked him to make cherubim of gold on top of it. He said:
“And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work
you shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one
cherub at one end, and the other cherub at the other end; you
shall make the cherubim at the two ends of it of one piece with the
mercy seat. And the cherubim shall stretch out their wings above,
covering the mercy seat with their wings, and they shall face one
another; the faces of the cherubim shall be toward the mercy,
seal. You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark
you shall put the Testimony that I will give you. And there I will
meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy
seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the
Testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment to
the children of Israel” (Ex.25: 18-22). And it was done.
Forming the images of these two cherubim was not a
transgression of the second commandment which orders not to
make an idol in the form of anything in heaven above, because the
aim was not to worship the angels represented by these two
cherubim. On the contrary, the image of the two cherubim
was formed upon a Divine command in the same way that the snake
was made upon a Divine command.
(5) In the same manner, Solomon built the Temple and
decorated it from within: “he made two cherubim of olive
wood, each ten cubits high. One wing of the cherub was five
cubits and the other wing of the cherub five cubits: ten cubits
from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other… both cherubim
were of the same size and shape. Then he set the cherubim
inside the inner room; and they stretched out the wings of the
cherubim. Also he overlaid the cherubim with gold” (1Kin.6:23-28).
(6) It was not only a matter of two cherubim, but the Holy
Bible says: “Then he carved all the walls of the temple all
around, both the inner and outer sanctuaries, with carved
figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers”(1Kin.6: 29).
He made two doors for the entrance and “carved
on them figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, and
overlaid them with gold” (1 Kin.6: 32,35). Thus the house of
the Lord was decorated with images, paintings and carvings and
the people still worshipped God. They did not worship these
images or carvings. They did not disobey the second
(7) Likewise the Ark of the Covenant, which was respected
by priests, people and kings, did not at all represent pagan
worship. The Holy Bible tells us that after the Israelites were
conquered at Ai, Joshua, the son of Nun and the successor of
Moses, together with the elders of Israel, knelt down and
prayed to the Lord before the Ark of the Covenant till evening
(Josh.7: 6). The Lord did not say to Joshua: “You have broken
the second commandments”. But on the contrary, the Lord
talked to him, performed a miraculous sign in revealing the sin
of Achen, son of Carmit, gave Ai into Joshua’s hands and lifted
up Joshua’s head.
Joshua did not sin by kneeling before the Ark of the
Covenant of the Lord because he was not worshipping the Ark
but he was worshipping the Lord who came and spoke from
between the cherubim. Likewise David the Prophet did not sin
when he celebrated the return of the Ark, leaping and dancing in
front of it (2Sam.6: 12-15).
(8) Similarly, we say that we do not worship the pictures or
the icons, but we venerate them, thus venerating those to whom
they belong, according to the Lord’s words to His disciples: “If
anyone serves Me, him MY Father will honour” (John.12: 26).
If the Father venerates His saints, should we not venerate them?
(9) We say the same regarding the cross, of which St. Paul
the Apostle says to the Galatians: “O foolish Galatians…
before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among
you as crucified” (Gal.3: 1).
(10) We thank God that our Protestant brethren now raise
the cross on top of their churches without considering it a
(11) We thank God that in their Sunday Schools, our
Protestant brethren distribute pictures of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the angels, the prophets, Noah’s Ark with its animals, the Good
Shepherd and the sheep, David feeding his sheep, Elijah and the
ravens looking after him, Poor Lazarus and the dogs licking his
wounds, Balaam, and the Devil tempting the Lord Jesus Christ
in the wilderness. In distributing these pictures they are not
worried or in any doubt that they may be breaking the second
commandment by having pictures of anything that is in heaven
above or that is in the earth beneath.
(12) We cannot disregard the effect of pictures as lessons
explaining the events of the Holy Bible and the lives of the
heroes of faith and history. An icon may leave a more profound
effect on the soul than reading or listening to a sermon.
Icons connect the believers on earth with the angels in
heaven and the righteous who abide in Paradise. They give us a
strong inner motive to carry out the Apostle’s words:
“Remember the leaders who spoke the word of God to you.
Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their
faith” (Heb.13: 7).
(13) In venerating pictures, we are in effect venerating their
owners. When we kiss the Gospel, we show our love to the
word of God and to God who gave us His commandments for
our guidance. When we bow down before the cross, we bow
down, as one of the Fathers said, “to Him who is crucified on
it”. The commandment “You shall not bow down to them or
serve them”, does not apply to us at all when we do these
(14) It is well known that icons have been recognised since
the Apostolic Era. It is said that St. Luke the Evangelist was an
artist and that he portrayed more than one picture of the Virgin
Mary. Tradition tells us about the image of the face of the Lord
Jesus Christ imprinted on a handkerchief.
If you study the history of icons you will find that the
strongest eras in faith were those in which people venerated
icons. Their faith was not affected but on the contrary, they
were virtuous people.
(15) Why should we deprive artists from sharing in
activating the spiritual life of people? Pictures give spiritual
feelings that affect the soul and effectively transfer to people the
life-stories of saints.