Liturgy Of The Presanctified Gifts
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is a divine service which the Christians of the Byzantine churches celebrate on Wednesdays and Fridays of all 40 days of the Great Fast. The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is an evening service. To be more precise, it is a partaking of the Eucharist after Vespers.
According to tradition, Wednesdays and Fridays are days of abstinence from food. During these days we experience a special expectation for the partaking of the Eucharist and thus they are significant for our spiritual and physical renewal.
The service starts as Great Vespers. However, the first exclamation of the priest is the same as that during the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom or Basil the Great. By the Rivers of Babylon. This psalm may be solemnly chanted before the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.
By the Rivers of Babylon may be solemnly chanted before the Liturgy.
Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and for ever and ever.
This exclamation means that we are in the Kingdom of our Heavenly Father. To become a citizen of the heavenly kingdom is much easier than to become a citizen of the United States or any other country, for example. Once you WANT to become a citizen of the Heavenly Kingdom and are illumined through water and the Spirit– you become one. Thus, the whole service is addressed to the hope for the Kingdom. It becomes that spiritual expectation toward which we journey through the whole Great Fast.
Then we hear the chanting of Psalm 103
Bless the Lord O my soul! You are very great O Lord my God!
While the choir chants Psalm 103 the priest reads the Prayers of Light in which he asks God to fill our mouths with praise that we may exalt His name: “Grant that for the rest of this day we may escape from the manifold deceits of the Evil One…grant that the evening and the coming night may be spent in peace”. By the end of Psalm 103 the deacon invites us to pray through the Litany of Peace.
In peace let us pray to the Lord
These first words show us that we should begin our prayer when our minds are at peace. When we possess peace of mind we cannot hold any anger or jealousy, especially when this anger is directed at other persons. The deacon does not, strictly speaking, pray; rather, he invites the assembly to pray, and we all respond “Lord, have mercy!” The litanies are not prayers per se but certain themes for our own prayers. For example, when we hear the deacon say: “For those who travel by sea, air, and land, for the sick and the suffering…” we can picture the faces of those people whom we have in mind, or pronounce their names silently and keep them in our hearts.
Every person present in the church is not a passive spectator but an active participant in the Divine Service. The deacon calls us to prayer and the priest, on behalf of all of us, asks the Lord to hear our prayers and to deal with us according to his loving kindness.
The 18th portion or Kathisma comprises psalms 120-134. These are the “songs of ascending”. They were sung at the steps of the Temple in Jerusalem. Ascending those steps, the people were preparing to meet the Lord, their God.
During the singing of Kathisma the priest takes the Consecrated Gifts out of the tabernacle and places them on the diskos. He incenses the asterisk and small veil over the thurible, covers the diskos, and incenses the covered Gifts with three swings of the thurible without saying anything.The fact that the priest says nothing is significant, for the Eucharistic prayers have been said on the Sunday Eucharist: there is nothing more to be said by the assembly, for God is already manifested as being in our midst! During the singing of the third Kathisma all in the sanctuary make a profound bow. Then the priest raises the diskos to the level of his forehead and, led by a server with a lighted candle, proceeds around the altar to the Prothesis Table (or Table of Preparation). He pours wine and water into the chalice, but says nothing. He then takes the thurible, incenses the veils, and covers the Gifts saying nothing. He incenses the covered Gifts with three swings of the thurible.
By the end of the last short litany the choir begins to sing verses from Psalms 141 and 142 “O Lord I have cried to you hear me, hear me O Lord” and the stykhyras (or “propers”) of the day.
Stykhyras are poetic liturgical texts whose content is imbued with the meaning of the day being celebrated. The deacon incenses the entire church while the choir sings these stykhyras. When the choir sings the final verse “Glory to the Father…”, the priest pronounces the Prayer of the Entrance:
“In the evening, at dawn, and at noon, we praise You, we bless You, we give thanks to You, and we beseech You, O Master of All, Lord Who loves humankind: direct our prayers as incense before You; let not our hearts fall into evil words or thoughts, but save us from those who seek after our souls. For to You, Lord, O Lord, we lift up our eyes, and in You we have trusted. Put us not to shame, O our God, for to You are due all honor and worship, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and for ever and ever. Amen.”
The deacon, making the sign of the Cross with the incense, exclaims:
Wisdom! Be attentive!
The incense indicates that our prayers indeed rise to God. It also indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the assembled faithful. When the deacon makes the sign of the cross with the incense, the Gates of Paradise are shown to be opened once again through the power of Christ’s Cross.
In this ancient hymn we address the Son as the Silent Light of our Heavenly Father. He came (and comes) to this world in a humble and clandestine way as a “Silent Light,” dispelling the darkness of sin and division and manifesting God’s Glory in his condescension. In this hymn we sing that only with reverent voices (and not with the voices of sinners) can we give praise and glory to God.
The Entrance reminds us about our righteous ancestors of the Old Testament who were expecting the coming of the Messiah, and how God became human for our salvation.
The Prokimen is a verse from the Holy Scriptures most commonly taken from Psalms. The verse for the prokimen is especially strong, clear and relevant to the event celebrated. The name “prokimen” comes from the place of the psalm verse at the liturgy, that is, preceding the reading from the Holy Scriptures. There are two readings from the Old Testament in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.
During the first reading a priest takes a lighted candle and the thurible. When the reading is over the priest, facing the altar, makes the sign of the cross with the incense and exclaims: Wisdom! Be Attentive! With this exclamation he calls our special attention and reverence, telling us of the wisdom proclaimed at the present moment.
The priest, still holding the candle and the thurible with crossed hands, turns to face the people and makes the sign of the cross upon them while exclaiming: “The Light of Christ enlightens everyone who comes into the world.”
The candle is the symbol of Christ, the Light of the World. Lighting the candle during the readings from the Old Testament explains that all prophesies are fulfilled in Christ. Moreover, in ancient times, the Great Fast was a period of preparation for the catechumens (those persons preparing for Baptism into Christ’s New Life and Church), whose Baptism would take place at the Easter Vigil (the night before Easter morning). Nowhere is the connection between the Great Fast and the preparation for Baptism more evident than in this blessing with a lit candle: just as the Old Testament leads to Christ, the Great Fast leads the catechumens to the Enlightenment of Baptism. The light of Baptism that unites them to Christ opens their minds to an understanding of Christ’s teaching and an experience of Christ’s Life.
At this moment all the faithful go down on their knees and make three profound bows, or prostrations.
Second Old Testament reading.
Singing of verses from Psalm 141.
“Let my prayer rise like incense before you”
In ancient times these verses were likely to have been sung during Holy Communion. Now they are a beautiful penitential prelude to the second part of the service, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts proper.
Litany of supplication (sung in special melody).
The deacon invites us to concentrate on our prayers. During this litany the priest prays that God may accept our fervent prayers and send mercy (loving-kindness) on His people.
First prayer of the Faithful
“O God, great and worthy to be praised, Who through the life-giving death of Your Christ has changed us from corruptibility to incorruptibility, deliver all of our senses from deadly passion, placing over them our intellect as a sure guide. Let our eyes avoid all evil, let our ears close idle talk, and let our tongue be cleansed of unbecoming speech. Purify our lips which praise you, O Lord. Let our hands abstain from evil deeds, but do only those things pleasing to You, and by Your grace strengthen our body and mind.”
Second Prayer of the Faithful – (prepares us for the transfer of the Presanctified Gifts).
“Holy Master, infinitely good, we beseech You Who are rich in mercy to show compassion on us sinners and make us worthy to receive Your Only-Begotten Son and our God, the King of Glory. For behold, His most pure Body and life-giving Blood are about to be brought and placed on this mystical altar at this time, escorted by invisible angelic hosts. Allow us to partake of them in blamelessness so that the eyes of our understanding, being enlightened thereby, we may become children of the light and of the day. Through the gift of Your Christ, with Whom You are blessed, together with Your most holy, gracious, and life giving Spirit, now and for ever and ever.”
The Transfer of the Presanctified Gifts to the Altar.
This entrance may look like the Great Entrance from either the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom or of Basil the Great, but in reality its spiritual meaning is very different.
The people kneel and remain kneeling during the Transfer of the Gifts and sing the following:
“Now the powers of heaven are serving invisibly with us…”
The priest at the altar with upraised hands recites three times with a bow:
“Now the powers of heaven are serving invisibly with us. For behold, the King of Glory now enters as the mystical sacrifice, perfect and complete: solemnly is now brought forth. Let us all approach, full of faith and love; let us draw near and become partakers of everlasting life. Alleluia! Alleluia! Allelulia!”
After the entrance, the priest sets the gifts on the altar as usual. Without saying anything he removes the veils from the Gifts, covers the Gifts with the large veil, and incenses them with three swings of the thurible. The priest, servers, and people make three prostrations. The Transferring of the Gifts may be over, but we know that God, manifest in these Gifts, is giving us New Life! We are very close to partaking of the Eucharist! The deacon reads the litany of offering and the priest prays that God may deliver us from every snare of the devil who is trying to influence our thoughts, words, and deeds. He prays so that we may obtain the blessings that God promised us, together with all the saints who have pleased God since the beginning of time.
The Lord’s Prayer
The Lord’s Prayer ends our preparation for the Eucharist. When we pray this prayer of Christ, we accept Christ Spirit and make it our own. Christ’s prayer to the Father becomes our own prayer to the Father. Christ’s will, desire and life becomes ours as well.
“Let us be attentive! Holy Presanctified Gifts for the Holy!”
This means that the Presanctified Gifts are offered to all those who believe in Christ; to all those who are gathered as the Church at that moment and desire to live in the Life of the Trinity. As the manifestation of Christ’s presence among us, these gifts are revered with the title “Holy.” This is the moment when the faithful unite themselves to Christ: “Taste and see how good the Lord is!” (Psalm 33).
We know that the liturgy is not just a prayer “about something”; instead, the liturgy is our participation in the sacrifice of Christ and a communal effort to serve God. As such, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is the presence of that Strength that nourishes us, that Shield that protects us, as we struggle to reclaim our likeness to God in the period of the Great Fast. Though we fast from all spiritual and bodily dependencies, though we fast to prepare ourselves for the joyous celebration of Pascha, of Jesus’ Resurrection, the Church nevertheless offers us the “Manna from heaven,” the Eucharist, in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts to sustain us as we journey through the Great Fast to the Kingdom of God. Awaiting the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, we already have a taste of it here and now in the Eucharist through the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. How wonderful, how loving is our God, who gives us the Gift of Himself! To Him Whom we receive and give thanks in the Eucharist, towards Whom we journey during the course of the Great Fast, and in Whom we live in glory unto ages of ages!