Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As we finish the 2nd week of Lent, I would like to focus on a service that is peculiar to this holy season—the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.
It is a beautiful Liturgy, one only celebrated during the Great Fast. There is much history to this service, and while we don’t have the space to go into great detail on every aspect of it, I’d like to briefly touch upon a few things to meditate on from this wonderful gift of the Church.
1.) The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts teaches us to completely depend upon God.
Consider the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann from his book “Great Lent: Journey to Pascha”:
“Holy Communion is the fulfillment of all our efforts, the goal toward which we strive, the ultimate joy of our Christian life, it is also and of necessity the source and beginning of our spiritual effort itself, the divine gift which makes it possible for us to know, to desire, and to strive for a ‘more perfect communion in the day without evening’ of God’s Kingdom.”
As my own parish priest said to us at the beginning of Lent last year, “Cling to the altar.” This is what we do as Orthodox Christians. We realize that the beginning of our spiritual life, the struggle of our spiritual life, and the consummation of our spiritual life depends upon our oneness with the Eternal Triune Godhead, which is made possible through the Sacraments of the Church. And our spiritual life is most nourished above all through the Sacrament of Sacraments, the Sacrament of the Kingdom to Come (which is made present in and through the Church)–the Eucharist.
The Church realizes that fasting is not easy, it is a struggle, but she does not ask us to do this alone, without her help. The Church does not ask of us that which is impossible. As the Gospel of Matthew records, through Christ “all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Fasting is possible, through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The Church realizes this, and therefore makes frequent Holy Communion available for us during Lent, so that we may be strengthened and nourished by Christ Himself, and be given everything that is necessary for us not only to complete the Fast faithfully, but to grow in continued holiness and repentance to arrive at Pascha with purity of heart.
2.) The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts teaches us how to pray.
This beautiful Liturgy teaches us to pray the most familiar prayer of Great Lent–the prayer of St. Ephraim of Syria. The prayer goes something like,
“O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle-talking, give me not. (prostration) But rather a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love bestow upon me Thy servant. (prostration) Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen. (prostration)”
Not only that, but throughout the Liturgy, all the faithful, together with the Priest and other orders of clergy prostrate themselves before Christ numerous times. The prayer of St. Ephraim is experienced in action in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts in a special way. In the book, “The Year of the Grace of the Lord: A Scriptural & Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church” a monk of the Eastern Church says the following on this holy prayer:
“This prayer sums up all that is essential in spiritual life. A Christian who used it constantly, who nourished himself from it during Lent, would be at the simplest and best school. Even someone who restricted himself to repeating and meditating on these words, ‘Lord and Master of my life,’ would enter deeply into the reality of the relationship between God and the soul, the soul and its God.”
3.) The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts reminds us that we are pilgrims journeying toward the Promised Land of the Kingdom.
Just as the Israelites were nourished with the heavenly manna during their exodus to the Promised Land, so also the Church is nourished by the real heavenly bread, the true bread that comes down from heaven, Christ Himself, as she journeys through the desert of this world. The Church remembers the story of the Exodus of the people of God through the Old Testament readings during Lent and this helps us understand that we too, as the Church, are pilgrimaging towards our heavenly homeland, but we do not do this alone, God provides for us with the greatest gift He could ever give the world–Himself.
Through reading the Old Testament, we are reminded that we are journeying towards the day without evening–Pascha, the Day of the Lord. Jesus came to establish a New Covenant, a New Passover, and a New Exodus. This is experienced in the prayers of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. We feel that we are journeying, we repeatedly partake of the New Covenant Passover Lamb, though we grow tired, and weary. Yet we continue journeying towards the Promised Land, trusting in the promises of God, sustained through continuous reception of the true manna from heaven, Jesus Himself (John 6). Listen to the prayer the Priest prays before the Ambo at the end of the Presanctified Liturgy; it is worth quoting at length:
“O Almighty Master, Who in wisdom hast fashioned all creation; Who, through Thine ineffable providence and great goodness, hast led us to these all-revered days for purification of souls and bodies, for the restraint of passions, and for hope of the Resurrection; Who, during the forty days, didst put into the hands of Thy servant Moses the tablets in letters divinely inscribed: Grant unto us also, O Good One, to fight the good fight, to complete the course of the Fast, to preserve the Faith undivided, to crush the heads of invisible serpents, to be shown to be conquerors of sins and, without condemnation, also to attain unto and worship the holy Resurrection. For blessed and glorified is Thine all-honorable and majestic Name…”
May we take advantage of this wonderful gift the Church gives us during Lent. Let us see the great treasure that this holy service is that the Church gives us for our nourishment and sustainment during the Fast. May God grant that we may more worthily frequently receive Holy Communion in this beautiful penitential service of the Church to help us journey towards the Feast of Feasts, the Day of New Creation, the Day of everlasting joy–Pascha!