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Bright Sadness

The Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is a prime example of a Byzantine Lenten service.

Now the Powers of heaven invisibly adore with us. Behold the King of Glory enters! Lo, the mystical sacrifice is borne aloft fulfilled. Let us draw near with faith and desire to become partakers of life eternal. Alleluia!

As the choir sings these words, the awed worshippers prostrate themselves to the ground. The priest and deacon process through their midst bearing the Holy Gifts that were hallowed at the previous Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. After entering the sanctuary, the deacon closes the Royal Doors and draws the veil halfway across the entrance. This ensemble of chant and gesture evokes the Eastern Christian’s approach to Lent or the Great Fast. We are attending the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the most evocative and characteristic of the Byzantine East’s Lenten services.

Every celebration of the Divine Liturgy is a proclamation and actualization of the Resurrection of the Lord and, as such, is suffused with Paschal joy. For this reason the Eastern fathers felt it inappropriate to celebrate the full Eucharistic Liturgy on the fasting (ie. weekdays) of Lent. And yet, even as they fasted from bodily food, they experienced a greater hunger for the sustenance of the Holy Eucharist. The more they abstained from the passions, the greater the desire they felt for intimate communion with the Bridegroom of the Church.

The Church of Constantinople from which all Churches of Byzantine tradition derive their rite, created a special service to highlight the paradox between paschal victory and Lenten struggle, the absence of the Liturgy and the presence of Christ. They wedded the distribution of Holy Communion to the celebration of solemn Lenten vespers. Thus creating the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.

Vespers, even outside of Lent, provides a kaleidoscopic view of the life of the Christian-oscillating between the darkness of sin and the brightness of the promise of redemption. During the Great Fast this paradox is heightened by extensive readings from the Psalter con taining such verses as:

Woe is me that my exile has been so long (Ps 119)
I lifted up my eyes to the hills whence shall help come to me (Ps 120:1)
I was happy when they said to me, Let us go to the house of the Lord (Ps 121:1)
When the Lord brought back the captives of Sion, we were like in a dream (Ps 125:1)
Those who sow with tears will reap with joy (Ps 125)

While lighting the lamps of the church to the fragrant accompaniment of clouds of incense, the faithful hear the Lenten message proclaimed in song: now is the acceptable time, now is the time of salvation! Passages from Genesis and Proverbs bring home the drama of sin and redemption. Again a great cloud of incense bears aloft our prayers of repentance and expectant deliverance.

Let my prayer rise like incense before You and the lifting up of my hands like an evening sacrifce. Set a guard, O Lord, before my mouth…incline my heart away from evil, from finding excuses for sinful deeds.

Now the assembly reenacts with their own bodies the polarity of fall and restoration, exile and return, death and resurrection by a three-fold prostration to the ground followed by a return to a standing position. The East calls this a ‘metany’ from the Greek word for repentance. In some churches this rite is accompanied by the hushed repetition of the beautiful prayer of St. Ephraem the Syrian:

O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Your servant.
Yes, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed are You unto ages of ages.

The faithful have done battle all day with the passions that war against them by prayer and fasting. Lest they succumb to weakness and discouragement, the Church nourishes them with the Divine Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ presanctified: that is, hallowed at the previous Sunday’s Eucharistic Liturgy.

O good and holy Master, rich in mercy! We entreat you to be merciful with us sinners: Make us worthy of receiving your only Son, our God, the King of glory. For behold, attended by unseen hosts of heaven, his most pure Body and life-giving Blood are about to be ushered in and placed upon this mystic altar. Without fear of punishment, let us share in them, that the eyes of our understanding may be brightened and we may become children of light and day. Through the gift of your Christ, with whom You are blessed, together with your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen

Consoled by the presence of their Victorious Redeemer, the faithful are reminded that they must “full up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” (Col. 1:24). Of course, nothing is objectively lacking to Christ’s redemptive act – what is “wanting” is our own personal life-long participation in the unfolding mystery of grace. This element of the “already complete but still in process” mystery is central to the experience of Lent. It is symbolized by the half-drawn veil before the Royal Doors. The Risen Victorious Christ is already present in the Holy Mysteries on the altar and so the curtain is open; yet our vision of His glory is clouded by the tears of repentance for sin, the war against which still rages in our hearts, and so the curtain is drawn. It is what Father Alexander Schmemann, a leading liturgical theologian, calls the “bright sadness” of Lent.

As this masterpiece of Eastern spirituality reaches its climax in the reception of Holy Communion, the priest offers this final prayer of thanksgiving:

O Lord, Our God! You have led us to these solemn days and made us partakers of Your awesome mysteries. Unite us to the flock of Your Word and show us to be heirs of Your Kingdom, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen

Father Romanos is a regular contributor to Catholic Near East Magazine.

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