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.”
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts
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