An Explanation of the Traditional Kadylo (Censer)
The use of incense in worship is a very ancient practice, and can be found (at one time or another) in all of the world’s major religions. Sadly, however, in modern practice, most Reformed Christians have abandoned the use of incense, and even Roman Catholics seldom celebrate “High Mass” or Benediction anymore. Inquirers into the Orthodox Church are often confused by the depth of symbolism in our worship, and incense in particular has caused many arguments over “allergies” and “smoke sensitivity.” So why, then do we still use it? The answer is partly historical, partly symbolic, and comes from a combination of Jewish and Christian traditions.
In the Old Testament we read how the Jews used to offer incense to God. In the New Testament, the angel came to Zachariah while he was raising incense in the Temple, to announce to him the birth of John the Baptist.
In our worship today the priest raises incense in the evening during Vespers, in the morning during Matins, and during the Liturgy. The censer is usually made of brass or silver in the shape of a cup. This cup is suspended on three chains from which it can be swung. The upper cup (dome) represents heaven. The lower cup (dome) represents the womb of Mary. These three chains represent the Holy Trinity: the Father begot His Son, The Son obeyed the Father, and the Holy Spirit came upon the Theotokos for the incarnation of the Son.
Inside the censer, the deacons put a lit charcoal, and then the priest puts incense on the charcoal. The coal represents Christ's Humanity. The fire represents Christ's Divinity. The smoke that rises from the burning of incense is like our prayers rising to God with our needs. The bishops, priests, or deacons are the only ones who can raise incense to God.
Finally, the bells on a kadylo have always attracted attention. There are 12 bells, representing each of the 12 Apostles. By tradition, one bell has been silenced, symbolizing the traitor, Judas.
When people begin to complain about the smell of smoke in church, citing the familiar excuses of allergies, breathing problems, and sensitivity, feel free to remind them of several facts: (1) the smoke represents prayer—if you’re really praying, why are you worrying about smoke?—God will take care of your prayers, issues, and hang-ups (if you stop worrying about what’s going on around you); (2) most church-grade incense today is made with a combination of 100% natural resins—for all the “eco-freaks” out there, it’s not chemical, it’s organic! (3) Lastly, if you are that bothered by the smell of prayer, maybe it’s time for you to go to confession!