“THE DISCIPLES OF JOHAN and of the Pharisees were fasting. Then they came and said to [Jesus], ‘Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days’” (Mark 2:18-20).
This exchange, recorded in all three synoptic Gospels, established a principle which the Byzantine Churches follow, particularly during the Great Fast. Fasting, a regular part of the prophetic and ascetic lifestyles of the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist, was not appropriate for those in the presence of Christ. Others were waiting for the Kingdom of God which was not yet fulfilled in their eyes; their fasting was an indication of their hope. They fasted in the hope that God’s Kingdom would soon be made manifest. Jesus’ disciples did not fast because they believed that in Christ that Kingdom was present and realized. Celebration and communion, not fasting, was the appropriate response to His presence.
In the Church this principle is at the heart of the following practice. We fast when we are preparing to experience the presence of God in Christ, either in the Eucharist or in the Great Feasts of the Church year. Once this presence is upon us, we do not fast; we celebrate, most importantly by participation in the Eucharist.
Before electricity, when people’s lives were governed by the rising and setting of the sun rather than by a clock and by the style of modern living, the Divine Liturgy was served at specific times of the day in order to prolong or shorten the time spent fasting. Thus Sunday and holyday Liturgies were served at 9 AM; on other days it was held later in the morning. On the greatest feasts it was served at midnight, so that there would be no fasting at all on that day. On the weekdays of the Great Fast and Holy Week an even later Eucharist was prescribed, in conjunction with vespers. On Thursday and Saturday of Holy Week and some other days the Divine Liturgy is served this way. On ordinary weekdays during the Great Fast the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is observed instead.
Our Liturgy of the Presanctified
The first thing to be noted about the Byzantine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is that it is not a Divine Liturgy at all. This service is actually vespers to which is attached a distribution of the Eucharist sanctified at an earlier Divine Liturgy (i.e. “Presanctified”).
In the Byzantine tradition the Divine Liturgy is a celebration of the Kingdom of God made present among us by “the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand of the Father, and the second and glorious coming again” (Liturgy of St John Chrysostom). It is by definition a festive gathering – one that is not considered in keeping with the spirit of fasting.
Thus by the fourth century it had become customary to restrict the celebration of the Liturgy during the Great Fast to “the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day alone” (Synod of Laodicea, canon 29), transferring saint’s days to the weekends if need be.
The Eucharist, on the other hand, was long recognized as “the medicine of immortality – the antidote to prevent us from dying, causing that we should live forever in Jesus Christ” (St Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians). As such, Eucharistic Communion is particularly appropriate during the 40-day Fast. How then is this seeming contradiction to be resolved?
The Church’s response is the Liturgy of the Presanctified, which was being used in Constantinople by the sixth century. The Council in Trullo (692) issued a canon confirming this custom, one which still governs our lenten practice: “On all the days of the holy fast of Lent, except on the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day and the holy day of the Annunciation, the Liturgy of the Presanctified is to be served” (canon 52).This service is not the festive celebration of the Divine Liturgy but it allows those striving to keep the Great Fast to be strengthened by receiving Holy Communion.
Today the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is usually directed to be served on the Wednesdays and Fridays of the Great Fast and the first three days of Holy Week. There are still some places where this service is held daily, but since a day-long fast was customary whenever the Presanctified Liturgy was conducted, daily services are now generally held only in monasteries.
Until the twelfth century this service was attributed to various authors. Since then it has generally been ascribed to St Gregory the Dialogist, sixth-century Pope of Rome. Today it is thought that Gregory was simply recording the practice he had witnessed while serving as a papal legate in Constantinople.
Outline of the Service
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts begins with vespers, which starts in the usual way (opening prayers, Psalm 103, great litany, kathisma or section of the psalter). During the kathisma the priest places the Eucharistic Lamb on the discos and prepares a chalice of unconsecrated wine. The lamplighting psalms with stichera, the entrance and the singing of O Joyful Light then follow, much as usual.
Every weekday during the Great Fast a special prokimenon is then sung, whether at vespers or the Presanctified Liturgy, and two Scripture readings follow. Then, while Lenten vespers would continue as usual, the Presanctified Liturgy now follows its own course. The priest solemnly incenses the holy table while the psalm verse “Let my prayer rise like incense before You…” is sung, followed in some churches by the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian. During Great Week or on a saint’s day an epistle and/or Gospel selection is read. The rest of the service generally follows the structure of the Divine Liturgy with this all-important exception: there is no anaphora, because the holy gifts are already sanctified.
The Scriptures read at Lenten vespers or the Presanctified Liturgy derive from another ancient element of the Great Fast: the preparation of catechumens who would be baptized on Holy Saturday. The first reading (from Genesis) provides a basis for doctrinal catechesis while the second (from Proverbs) offers moral instruction. Reading the book of Genesis takes us back to our roots: we hear of our creation in the image of God, the sin of our first parents, and the downward spiral of mankind culminating in the flood. We hear of God’s unwavering love for us in His covenants with Noah, with Abraham and the patriarchs. Despite their failings and infidelities, God is always faithful.
Our readings from Genesis end with the Israelites in Egypt. During Holy Week we pick up the book of Exodus and read the story of Moses and the Passover of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom, which brings us to the New Passover, Christ, who passes from death to life, bringing us with Him to the resurrection.
Behold the completed mystical sacrifice in procession! Let us approach with faith and longing that we may become partakers of life everlasting. Alleluia.