Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Presanctified Liturgy

During my years in Athens, at the School of Theology, I had to give a sermon for the Liturgics Module at the chapel, located within the School of Theology. Since I gave it during Lent, my topic was the Presanctified Liturgy. Here I give you an English translation of the Greek original sermon.
The Orthodox Church celebrates mainly three Divine Liturgies, despite it also having other Liturgies that it celebrates rarely. The Three most popular ones are: 1. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, 2. The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great and 3. The Divine Liturgy of Saint James. These are known for their joyful and celebratory character. However, these liturgies are not able to be celebrated during the weekdays of Lent, due to the fact that they do not follow the solemn and mournful character of the Triodion. That is why the Orthodox Church celebrates the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, so the faithful can have the opportunity to receive Holy Communion on a regular basis, because otherwise he or she does not live in Christ.
The Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is a characteristic feature of this time of year, acquiring the unique beauty and solemnity that makes the spiritual culmination of the period of fasting. In particular, it is celebrated on a Wednesday and Friday of Great Lent, i.e. days with a mourning nature, the Thursday of the 5th week of Lent , Good Monday, Good Tuesday, Good Wednesday and whatever celebration falls on a weekday.
The name of this Liturgy describes exactly what it is. It is literally a Liturgy of “the Presanctified Gifts”. This means that it is not a Liturgy like the other ones that we celebrate during the year, where we have an offering and sanctification of the divine gifts. The actual gifts are sanctified during another Liturgy, which was celebrated on another date. Therefore, it is unlike any other evening service, because it gives the opportunity to the faithful to take communion. The priest, during this mournful period of Lent, every Sunday and even Saturday, extracts enough divine gifts needed for the Presanctified Liturgy of the week, from different prosfora from the one needed for the Sunday Liturgy. They are blessed during the specific prayers and are sanctified into the Body of Christ. Then they will be immersed into the Holy Chalice and will be stored into a special tabernacle for the Liturgy of the Presanctified Liturgy, celebrated during the week. The keeping of the Presanctified Gifts is an old liturgical practice by which the Church secures the possibility of Holy Communion to the faithful, when the external conditions of life, such as persecution or isolation of monks and hermits from the monastic brotherhoods, did not allow them to participate in the usual Eucharistic gatherings.
The service begins with the Great Vespers and places the entire service towards the objective of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the spiritual aim of Great Lent.  The hymns which are chanted are found in the Vespers service and simultaneously the preparations for the Divine Gifts are taking place. A special ritual accompanies the reading that takes us back to the time when the Great Lenten period was still the centre of the preparation for the Baptism of the catechumens. As we read the text from the Book of Genesis, a lighted candle is placed on the Gospel on the altar. The light is the liturgical symbol of Christ, who is the “Light of the World”, who illuminates the paths of our lives and warms our souls. The placing of the candle on the Gospel during the reading of the Old Testament symbolises the fact that all the prophecies were fulfilled in the Person of the Lord, who opened the minds of His disciples. The Old Testament leads to Christ as the Great Lent leads to the enlightenment of Baptism, which integrating the catechumens in Christ, opens their minds to understand His teachings.

The second part of this service begins with the Liturgy of the Catechumens, i.e. a set of prayers and requests especially for those preparing to be baptised, according to the ancient practice. After the catechumens leave, two prayers are recited introducing us into the Liturgy of the Faithful. In the first we ask for the purification of the soul, the body and the senses. In the second prayer of the faithful, it prepares us for the Entering of the Divine Gifts.
After the above parts of the service, the holiest moment follows, i.e. the procession of the Holy Gifts to the altar. This act reminds us of the Great Entrance which we all are used to from the Liturgies that are celebrated regularly.  What differs, however, is the liturgical and spiritual meaning assigned to it. During the Divine Liturgy, celebrated on a Sunday, the Great Entrance symbolises the offerings that the Church gives towards God; the Church offers herself, her life, the lives of her members and of course the entire creation as a sacrifice to God, as a representation of the one, unique and perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In the Presanctified Liturgy there is no offering, there is no sacrifice and Eucharist, there is no sanctification, but there is an apocalypse and an announcement of the mystery of Christ’s presence within the Church. This entrance requires, of course, a very great solemnity because it illuminates, liturgically, the coming of Jesus and the end of a long fasting period, prayer and waiting for the arrival of aid, relief and joy that we expect. That is why, during the Great Entrance, the faithful kneel, because what the priest holds is not bread and wine, but they are already the Body and Blood of the Lord, whilst the priest remains silent.
The last prayer, said in the ieron of the church by the priest, summarises the meaning of the service of the Presanctified Gifts and the relations with the efforts of the period of Lent. The spiritual struggle of the Triodion period is tough, but the victory against the invisible enemies is certainly the good fight, for whoever attempts to undertake this venture. Therefore, we are reminded that the Resurrection is not far away.
In recent years, it is evident that there is an attempt to return the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts to its previous time, namely the evening hours, so therefore the all-day fasting brings a new and special meaning to the holiness of both this Liturgy and this period.   
This Liturgy is one of the most beautiful and mystical services of the Orthodox Church. Moreover, it is also a constant reminder for the frequency of Holy Communion within a Christian life; it is a voice from the depths of history, from the ancient living tradition of the Church. A voice that claims that the believer cannot live the life in Christ if there is no constant renewal of the communion with the source of life, the body and blood of the Lord. The faithful needs to constantly live a life in Christ, a task promoted by our Church especially during the period of the Triodion. What eventually saves us is neither fasting nor the chanting or praying alone, but what Saint Gregory Palamas stated, ‘to do all of these in front of God’. This relationship with God and the burning of the heart in view of the evening Holy Communion is exactly what gives a completely different meaning in every moment of the day that went by, and gives a true understanding and feel of the coming Resurrection, increasing thus the desire all Christians have, of having Christ in the centre of their lives. 

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