07 Mar Pre-Sanctified Liturgy
This evening, we will celebrate the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts for the first time this Lenten season. Perhaps no other service better exemplifies the spirit of the Fast than this beautiful Liturgy. It is so unique and different when compared to any other service we do. The Divine Liturgy carries with it a Pashcal tone of joy and celebration.
The Liturgy of Pre-Sanctified Gifts is somber, to match the time of year it is celebrated. In its structure, it can be easy to mistake it for a Vesperal Divine Liturgy. Strictly speaking, it is not. It is vespers with reception of the Eucharist. When the Vespers portion ends, we do not move into all of the familiar elements of the portion of Liturgy we would experience in a Vesperal Divine Liturgy. How did this service come to be? In early centuries of the Church, it was quite common for faithful to receive the Eucharist multiple times during the week, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays.
During Lent, however, the Liturgy is not to be celebrated except for Saturday or Sunday, again due to its joyful nature not fitting the spirit of the Fast. So, the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy developed to allow the faithful to continue to receive the Eucharist during the week during Lent. The Sunday prior to the celebration of the Liturgy of Pre-Sanctified Gifts, the priest prepares an extra lamb (or two, if two Liturgies are to be celebrated), and during the time of the Liturgy when the priest is preparing the Communion for distribution, will take the extra lamb(s) and place some of the Blood of Christ on the bottom of them. They are then placed in a special container and left on the altar until such time that the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy will be served. Why is it served in the evening? Again, we look to the earliest days of the Church, when it was not uncommon for the faithful to fast (completely) until sunset. Being able to receive the Body and Blood of Christ was the crown of the day, for sustenance, both physically and spiritually. During the Vespers portion of the Liturgy, the pre-sanctified Body and Blood are transferred by the priest, first from the special container to the discos on the altar, then from the altar to the table of preparation where they will remain until the solemn entrance. During these transfers, the Royal Doors are closed.
Many critics of Orthodoxy view the closing of the Royal Doors, and to a degree the Icon screen itself as a means to separate the clergy from the laity. This is certainly not the case at all in our understanding, but specific to the Liturgy of Pre-Sanctified gifts, it makes a lot of sense that the doors be closed at these times. When the priest makes the solemn entrance with the already sanctified and consecrated gifts, the faithful prostrate and bow their heads. This is done in reverence for what is entering the Church as opposed to a regular Divine Liturgy where the entrance is made with the bread and wine (not yet the Body and Blood of Christ). We do not even lift our eyes upwards because of the presence of Christ. Likewise, when the gifts are being transferred earlier in the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, the doors are closed out of reverence for the presence of Christ. The priest, when he transfers the gifts from the altar to the side table, prostrates and carries the lamb above his head, so as to avoid raising his own eyes to the Pre-Sanctified gifts.
The section of the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy that follows includes Old Testament readings, the prayer, “The Light of Christ Illumines All” and petitions for catechumens and those preparing to be received into the Church. This section is closely related to the practice in the early Church of catechumens being received into the Church at Pascha. This section of the Liturgy was instructive, and prayers were offered for those preparing to join the Church. As we get later in the Lenten season, in addition to petitions for catechumens, petitions will be said for those preparing for illumination (i.e., those about to be received into the Church). When we think of illumination, we can clearly see the connection between these prayers and the priest bringing the lit candle to the center of the Church (“The Light of Christ Illumines All”). The final part of course, is the distribution of Communion, a prayer of thanksgiving, and the dismissal.
Plan to take advantage of the opportunity to participate in this beautiful service as often as you can, as we can only participate in it during this time of the year. Those planning to receive the Body and Blood of Christ should try as best as possible to fast from noon (post-lunch). Following each Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, there is a pot luck meal in the Upper Room where we can share some fellowship and enjoy a good meal to conclude our day. In Christ,