Elements of Worship: Incense, Icons, and Candles

By Jon DiNovo, participant at Goud op Zondag

The Christian Church has existed for nearly two thousand years and in those years many different forms of worship have arisen. These forms of worship, known as “Liturgy”, are intended to provide the worshiper with a guide or direction to their time of reverence with God.

Naturally, there’s a strong diversity of liturgy in the Church at large. Much has been written about this and much could still be written. One liturgical practice can be so familiar to a Christian that they don’t even think twice about it, while the very same practice can be totally foreign to another. For this reason, it’s important for the Church to have at least some basic understanding of foreign liturgical practices. In understanding and appreciating these different approaches to worship, the global Church can grow in unity and love for one another. Just as Christ desires. 

For this reason, we’re going to take a look at three different liturgical elements that many from Protestant backgrounds are typically unfamiliar with. The elements I’m talking about being incense, icons, and candles.


All liturgical elements have an origin in use. Some have a long-lasting history behind them. Incense is a perfect example of this having been present in worship services as far back as the time of the Old Testament. The use of incense persists throughout Scripture as a whole, reaching even into the final book of the Bible in Revelation 8v3-5. Knowing this, it’s plain to see why incense has been incorporated into Church worship at large- particularly in Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

The incense is representative of the prayers of the people ascending to God. This visual representation can help worshipers better understand and feel connected to their communication with God. 

The use of incense also invokes the sense of smell in an attempt to bring a holistic experience to worship by incorporating as many of the five senses as possible. These uses paint a poignant image of worship for followers of Christ, connecting them to the earliest Hebrew worshippers. 


Incredibly prevalent in most branches of the Orthodox Church is the use of icons. Icons are visual representations of holy individuals whether that be Christ Himself, one of the disciples, Mary, the mother of Jesus, or one of the saints. Much like the rising streams of incense, the appearance of icons grants a visual aid to worshippers by providing a physical representation of an individual who inspires reverence for God. 

There has been a long-standing debate surrounding icons and their place in worship, with some critiquing their use as idolatry (worshiping a created image over the Creator Himself). The greatest known instance of this debate broke out in the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries in a conflict known as “the Iconoclastic Controversy”. During this time there was mass revolt and unrest over the use of icons. It should be noted, however, that mainline, Orthodox theology states that icons themselves are not the object of worship, God alone is that; the icon is merely meant to direct attention toward God.

Debate continues to surround the use of icons, particularly in more conservative and Western spheres of the Church. Ultimately, though, it is God who best knows the heart of the individual. There’s little reason for us to believe that the use of icons is idolatry, so long as the worshiper is using the icon as merely a way to inspire reverence towards God and God alone- similar to how the sunset or starry sky moves us to worship and glory in their Creator.


Much less controversial and more widespread is the use of candles. Candles appear in liturgies in all main branches of the Church: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike.

Protestant Lutherans make use of candles in their worship services to point back to the simple yet always relevant and necessary message of Jesus Christ as the light of the world.

For Catholics, the use of beeswax candles holds deep, symbolic meaning. The beeswax represents the flesh of Christ, the wick represents His soul, and the flame represents His divinity.

In the Orthodox world, St. Symeon of Thessalonica stated that candles symbolize the purity of the soul, the malleability of the soul, and the propensity of Christ’s followers to bring light to a darkened world. While Nicodemus of Mount Athos held similar views saying that candles represent God’s light in man, the joy of God’s presence, the honoring of saints and martyrs, and the forgiveness of sins.

The use of candles in Christian worship shows how something so small and simple can hold deep and inspiring meaning for those with faith in Christ.

Elements and Their Focus

I hope that our brief look into the use of these elements has taught you something new about the Church at large. I also encourage you to dig deeper into studying the rich histories behind the liturgies that incorporate incense, icons, and candles.

The Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit is the central and only focus of worship in the Christian faith. The incorporation of elements like incense, icons, and candles can do well to give us visual, and sometimes even nasal, reminders of God and our relation to Him. We must allow them to be guides that take our devotion and worship to the One who truly matters. The elements are not the ends in themselves but the means to the glorious and loving end that is God.

When we are able to view them accordingly, these wonderful elements can be embraced and appreciated in the way they were always meant to be.


May the Lord bless you as you worship Him.

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