Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts,History and Commentary..

Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts    

There is no celebration of the Eucharist on fasting days because the celebration is one continuous movement of joy; but there is the continuous presence of the fruits of the Eucharist in the Church through the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.
On the one hand, as the Feast of the Church, the Eucharist is incompatible with fast and is not celebrated during Lent; on the other hand, as the grace and power of the Kingdom which are at work in the world, as our supplier of the ‘essential food’ and weapon of our spiritual fight, it is the very center of the fast, it is indeed the heavenly manna that keeps us alive in our journey through the desert of Lent. But the Kingdom of God is not food and drink but the joy and peace in the Holy Spirit. Just as in this world food fulfils its function only when it is consumed and thus transformed into life, the new life of the world to come is given to us through the partaking of the food of immortality.

In the early Church, it was thought that the solemnity with which the Church celebrated the Holy Forty Days Fast did not mesh so well with the incredibly joyful and triumphant nature of the Eucharistic Anaphora, of the Divine Liturgies of St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom. In current practice many of the melodies used to chant the sacred texts of the Presanctified are set in a minor key, and this makes the service notably different from the festal celebrations of the Divine Liturgy on Saturdays and Sundays. For this reason, the Synod in Laodicea (363 AD) forbade the performance of the Divine Liturgies during the Great Lent, except on Saturday, Sunday, the Feast of the Annunciation, and Holy Thursday.

The Christians of that time were in the habit of receiving Holy Communion almost daily and now were deprived of the strengths derived from Holy Communion for about a week. That greatly saddened them. The Church, desiring its faithful to continue their pious habit of daily receiving the Holy Communion, developed the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts which enabled the faithful to communicate the Divine Eucharist on the weekdays during Lent.

From a formal point of view, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is a service of Holy Communion following Vespers (evening service). Customarily, the faithful would fast from all food during the daylight hours and then, near the end of the day, join together to pray Vespers. Following Vespers the Eucharist – which had been consecrated the previous Sunday – was distributed. In some places the Presanctified Eucharist was distributed daily, but over time the custom arose of celebrating the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts only on the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent  (plus a few other special days).

It received its present form from St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome in the sixth century. It became a Canon at the Quinisext Council in 692 AD.

The Canon reads:

On all days of the holy fast of Great Lent, except on the Sabbath (i.e. Saturday), and the Lord's Day (i.e. Sunday) and the holy day of the Annunciation, the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts is to be served (Canon 52, Quinisext Council, 692 AD).

As the years passed, however, the Christians unfortunately lost their original zeal and ignored the benefits from Holy Communion, and so they did not receive it every day or even every Sunday. They received it at long intervals. Therefore the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts lost its original and main meaning to those celebrating it. Today, it is used only during the Great Fast, on Wednesdays and Fridays; on Thursday in the fifth week of Great Fast; and on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Passion (Holy) Week.

Brief commentary of the Service

The Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts consists of Vespers, with special Prayers together with a portion of the Divine Liturgy, omitting its most important part, the consecration of the Holy Gifts; and the Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours (with the Typical Psalms) are used in a particular manner at the beginning. The evening reception of Communion is fulfilled after a day of prayer and fasting, with the total abstinence from food and drink at least from the early morning hours of the day. This approach is understood as a state of preparation and expectation, the state of spiritual concentration on that which is about to come. Physical hunger corresponds to the spiritual expectation of fulfilment, the opening up of the entire human being to the approaching joy. Thus, the fast is not only a fast of the members of the Church; it is the Church itself as fast, as expectation of Christ who comes to the Church in the Eucharist, who shall come in glory at the consummation of all time.

The Sacred Elements, consecrated at the Divine Liturgy on Saturdays and Sundays, are preserved on the holy Altar in the tabernacle. The priest places the Gifts on the diskos with prayer and incensing after the Great Litany, during the chanting of the psalms (kathisma). He carries them in solemn procession around the back of the Altar, and to the Table of Oblation (Proskomide).

The evening psalm, Lord, I have cried, is then sung with the special hymns for the day. This is followed with the evening entrance, the hymn O joyful light of the holy glory, and two Biblical readings; from Genesis and from Proverbs. From Genesis each year we learn all over again about the creation of the world, the fall of man, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, God’s covenant with Abraham, Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham being put to the test, and then about Joseph and his brothers. From Proverbs we are taught the practical wisdom for living the moral life. While always profitable for the believer these lessons date to the time when those preparing to be enlightened in Baptism, the catechumens, attended the Vespers part of this Liturgy. During the second half of Lent there are special petitions for those ready for enlightenment.

The Bible readings are punctuated by the Priest blessing the faithful with the censer and a lighted candle proclaiming The Light of Christ shines for all!. This blessing symbolises the light of Christ's Resurrection, which illumines the Old Testament Scriptures and the entire life of mankind. This is the very Light with which Christians are illuminated in the life of the Church through Holy Baptism.

The Prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian, O Lord and Master of my life, characterised by frequent prostrations, is read after the singing of the evening psalm, Let my prayer be directed like incense before you.

The catechumens having been dismissed, two prayers introduce the Liturgy of the Faithful. In the first, we ask for the purification of our soul, body, and senses:

First Prayer of the Faithful, by the Priest, after the unfolding of the Antimension

O God, who are great and to be praised, who have brought us from corruption to incorruption by the life-giving death of your Christ, free all our senses from the death of the passions, setting over them as a good leader the thought that comes from within. Let the eye abstain from every evil sight, the hearing give no entrance to idle words, the tongue be cleansed of unfitting speech. Purify our lips, Lord, that praise you. Make our hands keep from base actions, to perform only such things as are well-pleasing to you, making all our limbs and our mind secure by your grace.

The augmented litany is chanted, and the Presanctified Gifts are transferred solemnly in a procession to the altar table. This is when the following special entrance hymn is chanted:

Instead of the Cherubic Hymn the following is sung:

Now the hosts of heaven invisibly worship with us; for see, the King of Glory enters. See, the perfected mystical sacrifice is being borne in. Alleluia x 3.

The Prayer of St. Ephraim is read again, accompanied with a litany and a special prayer before Holy Communion (Eucharist). Our Father in heaven..., is recited and the faithful receive Holy Communion to the singing of:

O taste and see that the Lord is good. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Christ Himself tells us about the ‘narrow way’ and the few that are capable of following it. Therefore, in this fight, our main help is precisely the Body and Blood of Christ, that ‘essential food’ which keeps us spiritually alive and, in spite of all the temptations and dangers, makes us Christ’s followers. Thus, having partaken of Holy Communion the communicants depart in peace with thanksgiving to God for His Coming. The special dismissal prayer asks God for a successful fulfilment of Lent and to worthily celebrate the Great Feast of Pascha - the Resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Finally, having completed the service we are invited to depart in peace. The last prayer summarises the meaning of this service, of this evening Communion, of its relation to our Lenten effort:

Prayer by the Priest behind the Ambo

Master almighty, who fashioned creation with wisdom and through your ineffable forethought and great goodness have brought us to these most holy days for the cleansing of souls and bodies, for mastery of the passions, for hope of resurrection; who through forty days entrusted to your servant Moses the Tables of the Law in letters divinely traced, grant us also, good Master, to fight the good fight, to finish the course of the fast, to keep the faith intact, to smash the heads of invisible serpents and without condemnation to reach and to worship your holy Resurrection.

The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is one of the great masterpieces of Orthodox Lenten worship and liturgical creativity. It reveals the central Christian doctrine and experience in its form and content; namely that our life must be spent in prayer and fasting in order to be in communion with Christ who will come like a thief in the night. It tells us that all of our life, and not only on fast periods, is completed with the Presence of the Victorious Christ who is Risen from the dead. It witnesses to the fact that Christ will come at the end of the ages to judge the living and the dead and to establish God's Kingdom of which there will be no end. It tells us that we must be ready for His arrival, and to be found watching and serving; in order to be worthy to enter into the joy of the Lord.

In this world we can only anticipate the glory and joy of the Kingdom, yet as Church we leave this world in spirit and meet at the Lord’s table where in the secret of our heart we contemplate His uncreated light and splendour. And each time, in anticipation, having tasted of the peace and joy of the Kingdom, we return into this world and find ourselves again on the long, narrow, and difficult road. From the feast we return to the life of fast, to preparation and waiting. But the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts offers us a unique taste of beauty and solemnity which make it the spiritual climax of Lenten worship, a light that illumines our path through this world.

Written by a student of St. Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College,Sydney, Australia

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