By V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
When entering an Armenian Church, one of the first sensations to greet you is the smell of incense. It is a pleasing aroma inside the church, made up of frankincense and myrrh. It signals that you are moving from the everyday world into a more mystical place. The incense burns in a censer, adorned with small bells. The bells ring while the censer swings, accompanying the wafting of the incense throughout the church. Incense and censing were performed in holy spaces prior to the Armenian Church, but how early?
The ritual of censing is rooted in Moses’ time, when God instructed Moses to burn incense in the Tabernacle:
“You shall make an altar to burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood… Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout the generations…” (Exodus 30: 1,7-8)
The burning incense helped the Israelites not only understand, but also feel the sacredness of the place. The expensive incense filled the air of the tabernacle. It would have created an almost otherworldly environment in the tent: cooler, smoky, with the sweet aroma of incense. The High Priest continued to perpetually burn incense in the Holy of Holies in the first and second Temples. In fact, St. John the Apostle describes the angels censing before God in the Heavenly Kingdom:
“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” (Revelation 8:3-4).
In the same way that we cense as we worship before God during the Divine Liturgy, angels in Heaven cense God. The incense symbolizes our prayers, which are censed before God. King David expressed the same meaning in his Psalm: “Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2).
Accordingly, incense symbolizes both the presence of God and our prayers at the same time. Our prayers mix with the incense, connecting the faithful with God, during the Divine Liturgy. We are elevated to the Heavenly Kingdom, helping us transcend our human nature.
A lawyer asked Jesus, “teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus answered, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) How can we adore and feel that connection with God? It goes without saying that people discover and connect with the outside world through their senses. Our senses also help bridge our body and our soul.
Based on psychology, we can understand how big the role of senses is that it is connected to one’s whole being:
“Sensory messages are so interconnected with thinking, feeling, moving, and remembering that experimenters should take account not only of perceivers’ previous experiences and expectations, the verbal information available, and the social and physiological context of the measurement, but also of their own behavior and emotional state when performing any objective measurement.”
The Armenian Church engages all of a believer’s senses to feel God’s presence and adore Him with their whole existence. The icons, vestments, adornments, reliquaries, and other features inside the church appeal to the faithful’s sense of sight. The prayers, hymns, sermons, kshotz, and bell appeal to the faithful’s sense of hearing. Consuming the Holy Eucharist, blessed water, and mas appeal to the faithful’s sense of taste. Kissing the Gospel, the hand cross, and the Kiss of Peace appeal to the faithful’s sense of touch. The incense ties the faithful’s final sense, of smell, with God. Our sense of smell plays a pivotal role in our feelings and thoughts. A pleasant aroma can help someone feel good. During the liturgy, however, the faithful are not only smelling a pleasant aroma, but also inhaling God’s presence through the sense of smell.
It is impossible to discuss incense in the Armenian Church without also discussing the censer, or poorvar. Poorvar is a compound word, consisting of poor (aroma) and var (burning). The poorvar is usually shaped like a church. It hangs from a top with four chains, and a total of twelve bells on the chains. St. Gregory of Datev explained the poorvar as follows:
1) The three outer chains represent the Holy Trinity. They are all of identical in every way.
2) The metal piece on top which holds the chains represents the unity of the Holy Trinity as one God.
3) The twelve bells hanging on the chains represent the twelve Apostles of Christ.
4) The vessel of poorvar, where the charcoal and incense are placed, represents humanity and the world.
5) The burning coal represents the prayers of the faithful delivered to God.
He adds the following symbolisms associated with the poorvar:
A) The poorvar symbolizes the human nature of Christ, the fire symbolizes His divinity, and the incense symbolizes the Holy Spirit.
B) The poorvar symbolizes St. Mary, the Holy Mother of God; the fire symbolizes Christ’s divinity that lived in her; and the incense symbolizes the incarnation of Christ. The three chains symbolize the triple honor to St. Mary, and the sound of the bells symbolizes disciples’ preaching about Christ.
C) The poorvar symbolizes our hearts, the incense symbolizes our prayers and the fire symbolizes our warm love towards God.
The Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church was devised with intention, down to each detail. The church fathers designed the liturgy in order to draw in and engage the faithful. Despite its small size, the poorvar is a liturgical vessel that travels throughout the entire sanctuary. In doing so, it wafts incense that reaches every single person in the church. It draws us to offer up our prayers to God, to breathe Him in, and to feel that we are in His presence, in His Kingdom. The next time that you are in church, imagine that you are breathing in His sweet presence, mixed with your prayers. Imagine also that the prayers of all those around you are mixed in with that aroma, ascending to heaven. It creates a much more personal experience, and at the same time, shared experience, to engage in the Divine Liturgy in this way. In turn, it allows you to focus on God in His space.