It is a Friday evening during Great Lent. The church is muted, except for the rhythmic rush and jingle of the bells of the incenser as the deacon moves about the sanctuary. The cantor and people raise their voices in an opening hymn--a traditional Slavic Ruthenian chant, perhaps the heartbreaking "Now Do I Go to the Cross":
Now do I go to the Cross,
nowhere else shall I find You,
Jesus Lord, peace of my soul.
There I shall find the Mother of God,
sorrow and pain piercing her heart.
Sorrow now is all I feel.
The deacon strides out through the side of the icon screen, stands before the royal doors, and declares to the celebrant in the sanctuary, "Father, give the blessing!"
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts has begun.
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts--often referred to as "Presanctified Liturgy"--is a unique Lenten tradition among the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches. In form, it is essentially a Vespers service with the distribution of the Eucharist. Besides that, one important fact distinguishes it from a regular Divine Liturgy--it has no consecration. The reason, as the name of the service implies, is that the gifts of bread and wine are pre-sanctified--they have already been consecrated on the previous Sunday.
Roman Catholics should be familiar with this concept through their commemoration of Good Friday. Good Friday, in the Western Church, is an "a-liturgical" day--meaning it is not allowed to consecrate the Eucharist that day. But in the Eastern tradition, every weekday of Lent is considered a-liturgical. Thus, during the Great Fast, we celebrate Presanctified Liturgy with the already-consecrated Body and Blood every week--typically on Wednesdays and Fridays.
The service begins, as the normal Vespers service always does, with the chanting of Psalms. The words are utterly familiar, but the mournful Lenten melody lends them a special poignancy. Sorrow, joy, peace and longing strain forth in the flow of alternating verses. The Psalms finish with the singing of the Stichera, or propers for the day--liturgical poems often centering on a theme of Lenten struggle or repentance.
The service proceeds with the Hymn of the Evening, "O Joyful Light"--also a standard part of Vespers and one of the most ancient Christian texts. Traditionally, the church is dark or only partially lit up until this point; now, as we sing of the Light of Christ, the church is fully lit:
O Joyful Light of the holy glory of the Father Immortal,
the heavenly, holy blessed One, O Jesus Christ:
Now that we have seen the setting of the sun, and see the evening light,
we sing to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is fitting at all times to raise a song of praise in measured melody to you,
O Son of God, the Giver of Life.
Therefore, the universe sings your glory.
Next come the Prokeimena--the equivalent of Responsorial Psalms--and the readings. Unless the service takes place during Holy Week or some other major feast day, the readings are always from the Old Testament--Genesis and Proverbs, Exodus and Job. These books encompass essential Lenten themes: returning to beginnings to discover who we are and ought to be; humility and desire to pursue wisdom; escape from sin; and the purpose of suffering and repentance.
After the readings, we chant the Solemn Evening Psalm: Let my prayer arise to you like incense, and the lifting up of my hands like an evening sacrifice. The people sing this refrain standing, then kneel as the priest chants each of his verses. The bodily gestures of repentance continue with the full prostrations performed during the reciting of the Prayer of St. Ephrem (see this post for the text of the prayer).
During a regular Divine Liturgy, the text sung after the readings is the Cherubic Hymn. As the clergy process around the church with the yet-unconsecrated gifts, we sing of the angels and of the mystical sacrifice in which we are about to participate. But in a Presanctified Liturgy, the bread and wine the clergy hold are already the Divine Body and Blood of Christ. Thus the text is slightly different. This, as the priest and deacon prepare in the sanctuary, is what we sing:
Now the powers of heaven are serving with us invisibly.
For behold the King of Glory enters.
They escort the mystical sacrifice, already accomplished.
When the clergy process out from the sanctuary--the priest holding up God and the deacon incensing Him--the church hushes. The people bend to the ground in a full prostration. In complete silence--the only noise being the slow tread of the clergy, and the jangle of the incenser--we adore Christ passing through our midst.
(To understand the full power of this moment, you have to understand the ethos of Eastern liturgies in general. Unlike in the Western Mass, there are few moments of silence and meditation during services. Literally everything besides the homily is sung, and the litanies, responses, and hymns follow one upon the other with hardly a pause. This fosters an atmosphere of holy exuberance and joy--a gorgeous and occasionally overwhelming experience, especially for newcomers! In contrast, quiet moments during liturgy, even accidental ones, are rare. Thus a period of prolonged, purposeful, and solemn silence--as during the Great Entrance of Presanctified Liturgy--is almost overwhelming. To close the eyes and touch the head to the cold floor and listen, in that breathless hush, to God walking by--I am no theologian, but in my own small experience, it is a pinnacle of love and existence.)
After the Great Entrance, the service moves fairly quickly towards Communion. The text of the Communion Hymn is the beautiful Psalm verse, "Taste and see that the Lord is good." And we do indeed taste and see. In the East, the Eucharist is received not in the separate forms of wine and an unleavened host, but combined--small pieces of leavened bread soaked in wine, dropped into the mouth by a spoon. On regular Sundays, the loaves of bread used are fresh, and soft wine-soaked pieces dissolve easily in the mouth. But for Presanctified Liturgy, the Body of Christ--being, after all, in the physical form of bread which has been sitting in the tabernacle since the previous Sunday--is, well, harder than usual. Hard enough to require chewing. There is nothing irreverent about this. Christ is our Nourishment, body and soul; why should He not come to us solid and physically filling, as well as spiritually saving?
After Communion the service concludes in a tone of solemn thankfulness and joy. In the Byzantine Ruthenian tradition, the short final hymn "Having Suffered" is sung three times, in English and Old Slavonic. Sometimes, during its passionate mournful phrases, the church is darkened again, leaving, once more, only the candles burning before the icon screen, in mystical darkness.
(For the extra-curious or musically inclined reader, below are some to videos I've hunted up, providing a sample of the music I've referenced in this blog post. For the full experience, of course, visit your nearest Eastern Catholic--or Orthodox!--church.)
Now Do I Go to the Cross ~ A slightly different version, melodically, from the hymn I'm familiar with, but with the same text and surging mournful spirit. Beautiful.
Let My Prayer Arise ~ A short clip from a liturgy celebrated in one of our own Byzantine Catholic Ruthenian parishes in the Midwest by our Bishop John Kudrick. The video shows the clergy in the sanctuary; you can see the congregation through the open royal doors in the icon screen. The video includes the recitation of the Prayer of St. Ephrem directly afterwards.
Let My Prayer Arise ~ A choral arrangement of the Solemn Evening Psalm by Russian composer Dmitry Bortniansky. A favorite of mine, and hauntingly performed in this recording.