Glory to Jesus Christ! As we are living during this special season of Lent I want to share with us something that we are giving up during Lent but we are perhaps not aware of. If I asked you what we give up for Lent, we usually think of two types of things. For one, there is the fasting of giving up meat, meat products, and even wine and oil in the Byzantine monastic tradition. That’s something we tend to think about particularly at the beginning. What is our Byzantine Catholic Church’s minimum? Meat and meat products on both Clean Monday and Great and Holy Friday, and then meat for Wednesdays and Fridays for the rest of Lent. That’s our minimum and it’s always good to work with our Spiritual father or mother to think if this is adequate, if we need to hold back due to considerations like health, or if we should go more deeply into fasting. This deeply intimate consideration is important and is linked to something we should think about seriously each year. That’s one type of fast.
The second fast that is commonly on our mind during this season is also deeply personal, and is more recent in Church history. Very often we tend to consider fasting from particular activities that may help us draw closer to God, particularly as this season is also a time to grow in both more prayer and more almsgiving. For example, the deep connection we can easily have to technology is something good to give up during this season. Swearing off Facebook or Instagram or what have you? That may be something good to give up. Stuck watching too much TV? That may be something good to give up. Enjoying certain candies not really covered by the tradition of no meat in fasting? Same thing, you may choose to expand fasting out of your personal desire to grow closer to God during this Lent by giving up things like sweets. It’s your choice on this matter just like how strictly we follow our food fasting tradition.
However, I want you to know if you are Byzantine Catholic and you attend liturgy only at your home parish, there is another fast that you have had no choice to take part in. It’s another very important fast that our Byzantine Catholic Church has commanded us all to have, and may also explain why our Sunday liturgies are a bit longer with us celebrating the liturgy of Saint Basil instead of the shorter liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. What is this fast, you may ask? The answer, is the divine liturgy itself. You see, in the Byzantine tradition all Mondays through Fridays of Lent are what we call days of Alleluia. While we sing Alleluia more during Lent, we do not celebrate the Divine Liturgy with the joyous Eucharistic prayers, which are the anaphoras of either Saint John Chrysostom or Saint Basil. The words that are sung speak of how our God has worked out our salvation and speaking to the words of Christ at his last supper, as well as the liturgy where we call down the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine the body and Blood of Christ, are all so enjoyable, so life giving, so celebratory, that we are actually forbidden from celebrating them. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Our kids (and yes, even ourselves) so often ask to NOT go to church for this celebration of the Anaphora. Are we catering to our own desire to sleep in during Lent? By no means! God calls us during the weekdays of Lent to continue coming to Church, hopefully to do so even more, and we are called to celebrate in a different way. The tradition calls us instead to celebrate not the Divine Liturgy with the anaphora but to instead celebrate the special Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Considered popularized by Pope Gregory Dialogos of Rome who is said to have learned this liturgy while he served as a deacon in Constantinople, we have our way of receiving holy communion during Wednesday’s and Fridays of Lent.
So if we don’t hear the Eucharistic prayers that we’re used to, what do we hear during the Presanctified liturgy? First, we hear what we hear during every weekday service during Lent. The more somber music, the Old Testament readings, the censer (aka Kadilo) swings but it is a censer without bells, the dark vestments are worn, and the special Lenten Chants come to us. If you are only here on a Sunday of Lent, you will miss all of this. What’s more, the Presanctified Liturgy brings us into prayer in a very different way. Like other Lenten prayers, we use the more somber melodies as I mentioned, but this service is distinct. First, it has the structure of Vespers or evening prayer in that it uses some of the same Psalms: 103 and the other evening-focused psalms called the lamp lighting Psalms and their stichera or hymns go with them. The hymn O Joyful Light which St. Basil said was so old no one knew who wrote it, is also sung like on vespers. This is an evening prayer. But there is more. The sessional psalms known as the kathismata are sung, and we kneel during those hymns. That’s right, it’s not just the Roman Catholics who kneel. The hymns from the lamp lighting psalms (Let my prayer ascend to you like incense and the lifting up of my hands like an evening sacrifice) are actually repeated another time in a beautiful back and forth with the celebrant, again including kneeling. The special Lenten prayer of Saint Ephrem is also prayed and between the phrases we prostrate ourselves (if we have the strength to do so) placing our head to the ground to humble ourselves.
But at the heart of the Presanctified liturgy is its middle portion where the name comes from. The Eucharist is still at the center, but the Body of Christ is removed from the holy tabernacle during the sessional Psalms, it is placed on the altar of preparation or prothesis, and when it is time to process with them instead of singing “let us who mystically…” we sing of the angels but in a way that respects the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We sing, “Now the powers of heaven are serving with us invisibly, for behold the King of Glory enters. They escort the mystical sacrifice already accomplished.” As these words are sung the actual Body of Christ is carried just as at the Great Entrance, with the exception being it is a Eucharistic procession that calls us to bow and/or prostrate during this procession. As the celebrant passes through the royal doors our response is fitting: “Let us draw near with faith and love that we may become partakers of life everlasting. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” To respond to God coming to us, we respond with 3 prostrations in silence. Words escape us and the silence speaks to our hearts. As the liturgy continues, we prepare to receive Christ’s body and again as it is already presanctified there is no anaphora. In its stead there is a beautiful thanksgiving for what Christ has accomplished. We then receive after some more litanies and the Lord’s Prayer, and the presanctified flows like a standard Divine Liturgy, but again the music is that Lenten and solemn tone. It is so beautiful to take our normal celebration of Christ’s passion and then see it lived out in this very fitting and Lenten way.
What can we learn from this reflection on the Presanctified? First, to repeat, I hope you can make it to a service during the week. We have the Presanctified on Fridays at 6 p.m. followed by a soup and bread meal with a reflection, please try to make it if you can. Second, think deeply on the fact that we are fasting from the beauty of this anaphora that we celebrate today on all Mondays though Fridays. However, what we have in its place is another beautiful and profound way of looking at our Byzantine Catholic faith from another angle. May it not only nourish us on our journey to Pascha but also be a deep and moving way for us to enter into the mystery of our life in Christ throughout this Lent and for the rest of our lives. Glory to Jesus Christ!