The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is of very early and, in a sense, practical origin; practical in that it was seen as the means for the faithful to commune of the Sacrament on days when the Eucharistic Liturgy could not be celebrated. In early times, at least until the fourth century, Communion was considered so much a part of the Eucharistic Sacrifice that it was unthinkable to attend without partaking.
In fact, the faithful sometimes received the Sacrament more often than they attended the Liturgy, usually celebrated on Sunday only, the Lord’s Day, and this by virtue of taking the Sacrament home, in a special “arca “fashioned for this purpose. Tertullian testifies to the practice when he asks, “Will not your husband know what it is that you secretly consume before any other food?” In Syria, the practice was still current in the sixth century. John Moschos, a spiritual writer of the period, speaks of the faithful taking home with them on Holy Thursday enough of the Eucharist to last the year.
Of all the Lenten rules, one is unique to Orthodoxy, and so gives us a key to its liturgical spirit: it forbids the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on weekdays in Lent, as incompatible with fasting, the sole exception being the Feast of the Annunciation. But so as not to deprive the faithful of “the food of immortality”, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is prescribed, that is, a “Eucharistic synaxis” without the Consecration. The festal nature of the Eucharist is thus reserved for Saturdays and Sundays in Lent, while on the days of total fasting, Wednesdays and Fridays, the people receive the Holy Gifts that were sanctified on the previous Sunday.
The Presanctified was from the start an evening service, Communion following Vespers, to be conducted after the Ninth Hour, i.e. three o’clock in the afternoon. The daylong fast was thus broken early in the evening, much as the total fast on Sunday is broken after Communion. It is likely that this service was not always confined to Lent, but was common to all of the Church’s fasting seasons. However, permeated as it is with the “bright sadness” of Lent, it has taken on a special beauty and solemnity. As we pray for the Catechumens, those being made ready for Holy Baptism on Easter Saturday, we sense a direct connection with the Christian Church of the early centuries, and understand the initial character of Lent as preparation for Baptism and for Easter.
But it is the Prayers of the Faithful that really illuminate the Lenten road, giving us a fuller understanding of the meaning and purpose of the Lenten discipline:
“Liberate all our senses from killing passion, setting over them as benevolent sovereign our inner reason. Let the eye be averted from every evil sight, and the ear be deaf to idle talk. May the tongue be purged of unseemly speech. Purify these lips that praise You, Lord. Make our hands abstain from wicked deeds, doing only such things as are pleasing to You, thus sealing with Your grace all our members, and our mind.”
Then, as we prepare for the Entrance of the pre-consecrated Gifts: “Behold, His spotless body and life giving blood are about to make their entrance at this hour, to be laid on this mystical table, invisibly attended by a multitude of the heavenly host. Grant that we may receive them in blameless communion, so that as the eyes of our understanding see the light, we may become children of light and of day.”
Because the Divine Liturgy is the “Banquet of Christ”, a festive, triumphant celebration, the ancient discipline of the Church came to regard it as out of harmony with the penitential climate of Great Lent. Yet to provide the faithful with the “food of immortality”, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, that is, with the Eucharistic Gifts consecrated beforehand, at the Liturgy of the previous Sunday, came into use early on. (It is attested as the approved custom by the Quinisext Council of 692.)
The Presanctified Gifts were offered to the faithful, after the ninth hour, about 3:00 p.m., usually at the end of a day of fasting, in what is actually an elaborated Office of Vespers with Holy Communion. The Presanctified is conducted from fifteen to eighteen times a year:
On Wednesday and Friday of the first six weeks of Lent.
On Thursday of the fourth week of Lent.
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week.
The Sacrificial (or Resurrection) Liturgy is celebrated on all Saturdays and Sundays in Lent, on the Feast of the Annunciation, on whatever day it falls, and on Holy Thursday. (Good Friday is an a liturgical day.)
Particularities of the Presanctified
On the preceding Sunday, at the Prothesis, after dedicating the principal Amnos, or “Lamb”, to be distributed in Holy Communion that day, the Priest prepares as many additional “Lambs” as there will be Liturgies of the Presanctified during that week, saying for each the same dedicatory prayers as for the first.
However, at the Consecration of the Gifts all the “Lambs” are presented as one, for Christ is one. Similarly, at the elevation, all the “Lambs” are elevated together.
At the fraction, the Priest breaks only that Amnos which he dedicated first at the Prothesis. As for the others, he takes them one by one in his left hand, and with the spoon in his right pours a small amount of the Holy and Precious Blood of the Lord crosswise on the underside incised with the Cross, then places them in the tabernacle.
Readings from the Psalms are an important element of the Presanctified; the text used here is the translation from the Greek Septuagint authorized by the Holy Archdiocese in 1993, to be used “wherever the Psalms occur in our services.” It is the product of a collaboration between Father Leonidas Contos and Father Spencer Kezios for Narthex Press and Baron Jose deVinck for Alleluia Press.
Source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America