THE LENTEN EUCHARIST
There can be little surprise that on the Sundays in Lent the Liturgy of St. Basil is used. It’s longer than St. John Chrysostom’s, and that alone is reason enough to use it during Lent. It is also “deeper” if I can dare to say such a thing. There’s just more doctrine in St. Basil’s Liturgy than in Chrysostom’s, mind you, not much, but more. In good Orthodox parlance, I might say it’s “fuller.”
Lenten services tend to be longer, and they’re meant to be. They tend to be more sober, and they’re meant to be. There are more of them – at least in the normal parish.
But alone in the Christian world is the Eastern Church’s practice of not celebrating the Eucharist on the weekdays of Lent. It’s a sort of fast all its own. Not that we don’t receive communion during the week. No, extra devotion means the need for even greater grace, so that an Orthodox Christian ought to receive communion yet more often during Lent.
But the peculiarity of the Eastern Church is the use of the Liturgy of St. Gregory the Dialogist (a.k.a. “Gregory the Great” in the West), the liturgy that is most commonly known as “The Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts.” It is just what the name implies. We receive communion on certain weekdays (usually Wednesday and Friday) from the “reserved” sacrament as the West would call it – but known in the East as the “Pre-sanctified Gifts.”
It is a “Lamb,” consecrated on the previous Sunday along with the Sunday Eucharist, and intincted with the Blood of Christ. It remains in an artophorion (Bread Box) on the altar until the service of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts. No particular devotion is shown (not in the sense of the service of the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament). The Orthodox believe the Eucharist to be the Body and Blood of Christ, but the most common devotion shown to it is to eat it and drink it, rather than carry it about and look at it.
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is a slight exception to this. After the Vespers portion of the service (it is and was traditionally served in the evening), and a number of prayers and readings from Scripture, the Body and Blood are brought forth from the altar, veiled, and carried with lighted candle and incense from the table where it has been prepared, out into the congregation and into the altar through the Royal Doors. And this is in complete silence, while the congregation has heads bowed to the floor.
There is reverence and devotion, but here the service is not visual, but almost tactile. Often the silence is profound, and the slight shuffle of the priest give the only signal that God is being borne uplifted and into the altar. It is a devotion, perhaps to the Sacrament (a Westerner would be quick to point out) but one which feels more like devotion to God (though He is indeed sacramentally present). He is not seen in this process – but He is profoundly felt, a presence moving through the dimly lit Church and to the place from which He will be fed to us all.
My common thoughts have been on the Crucified Christ during these services – not that there is any particular mention of that – but the solemnity reminds me as much of the services of Holy Week as anything.
And then my thoughts go on to think of the Crucified Christ now feeding me. Even in His death He is Life.
If I remember my studies some years back, the pre-sanctified gifts came as something of an answer to Nestorianism – which, at its worst, sought to make a great distinction between the Divine and Human in Christ. In these Pre-sanctified gifts the Holy Union of God and Man is emphasized. Once united, never divided. Once consecrated, the Holy Gifts remain consecrated. My thoughts rarely go there – Nestorianism is not my particular temptation.
That God is with us, every day of this Lenten journey, even in the fullness of His Body and Blood – this I need to know and to hear.
Help me, dear Christ, not to stumble or fall.
Fr. Stephen Freeman is Pastor at St. Anne Orthodox Church
and author of the blog Glory To God For All Things