In the Byzantine Rite, besides the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and of St. Basil the Great, we have a third liturgical formulary, known as the Holy Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. As the very name suggests, the Eucharistic Gifts given in the communion at this service are pre-sanctified, consecrated beforehand. Strictly speaking, this office is not considered a ” complete Liturgy,” but is only a service of a solemn Holy Communion.
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated during Lent on those days when the ordinary Liturgy is not celebrated. Its origins historically are covered with some haze. Nevertheless, its use reaches back to the venerable antiquity of Christian worship.
1. All the Liturgies, before having been put in writing, were in use for a long period of time and were handed down by oral tradition. It was only much later that some particular formularies were recorded and thus were preserved for posterity. For this reason it is very hard, if not impossible, to establish an exact date and place of their origin, or to discover all the factors that influenced the evolution of these liturgical formularies.
The same should be said about the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, which, in all probability, came into existence at the beginning of the sixth century in Antioch, Syria. There the other Byzantine Liturg ies also originated. At some point during the sixth century the Presanctified Liturgy was transferred from Antioch to Constantinople, where it underwent fu rther liturgical evolution and received its definite shape. The first certain information about the celebration of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts in the capital of the East comes to us in an anonymous work, Paschalion, written in 616. There we read :
“In the fourth year of Emperor Heraclius (614), under Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople (610- 638), commencing with the first week of Lent, the people, following the Psalm ‘Let my prayer ascend to You’ (see Backcover) and the celebrant’s invocation ‘Through the gift of Christ: while the Presanctified Gifts were being carried to the altar, immediately started to sing ‘Now the Powers of heaven’ (see Backcover). This hymn is sung not only during Lent, but every time the Presanctified Gifts are celebrated.” (cf. P.G., 92, 989)
From this first reliable source concerning the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts we can conclude:
1) that at the beginning of the seventh century (about 614) this Liturgy was well developed and celebrated in Constantinople ; 2) that starting with Lent of 614, a new, most inspiring hymn “Now the Powers of heaven” was introduced ; and 3) that at that time the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts was celebrated not only during Lent, but also on some other occasions. It was limited to the Great Lent by the Council of Trullo (692), which stated :
“Let the sacred Liturgy of the Presanctified (Gifts) be performed on all days of the holy Forty Days’ Fast, except Saturday and the Lord ‘s day, and the holy Day of Annunciation.” (canon 52) More recent legislation limited its celebration to the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent, and to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week. (cf. A. Mikita, Cerk. Typykon, 1901 , p. 174) But even on those days the celebration of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is permitted (Ibid. ; Ordo Celebrationis, Rome 1944, n. 216).
2. The oldest text of the Presanctified Liturgy as celebrated in the Byzantine Rite today can be found in the often mentioned Codex Barberini, from the eighth century. Its author is not mentioned.
Only later manuscripts from the 11th- 12th centuries ascribe its authorship to various Fathers, like St. Basil (d. 379), St. Epiphanius (d. 403), St. Gregory the Great-the Dialogus (d. 604) , St. Germanus (d. 732), or even to some of the Apostles. But all these testimonies lack a historical basis or spring from apocryphal sources.
As such, therefore, they all are today rejected by the liturgists, who unanimously agree that the original author of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts remains unknown.
The oldest description of the Presanctified Liturgy belongs to St. Theodore Studite (d. 826), who wrote a short essay entitled ” Explanation of the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified.” (cf. P.G., 99, 1687-1690) The ritual as described by St. Theodore in his work is very similar to the one used at the present time.
The Carpathian particular usage of the celebration of the Presanctified Gifts is given to us by Canon Alexander Mikita, in his Cerkovnyj Typykon, printed in Uzhorod, 1901 (p. 200-207), while its commentary is presented to us by Father Eugene Fencik, in his Liturhika (Budapest 1878, p. 197-208), and by Prof. Nicholas Russnak, in his Hungarian work “A Keleti Egyhaz Miser’ (Budapest 1915, p. 114-120).
The ordinary Divine Liturgy was considered by the Fathers a joyous celebration, which usually was followed by the love feast-agape as mentioned by St. Paul (I Cor. 11 :20-22). A Syrian commentator and contemporary of St. John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 426), in his recently (1933) discovered Catecheses writes: “To participate in the Mysteries (Liturgy) is to commemorate the death of the Lord, which procures for us the resurrection and the joy of immortality.” (ct. Catech. 15, 7) .
Since Lent was a time of mourning and repentance, the celebration of the Divine Liturgy during the lenten period was limited to Saturdays and Sundays, as legislated already by the Synod of Laodicea (about 365) : “In Lent it is not lawful to offer the Bread (Holy Eucharist), except on the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day alone.” (canon 49) Hence the custom arose that on the other Lenten days the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts was celebrated to give to the people an opportunity to receive Holy Communion daily.
3. The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is composed of three clearly distinguishable parts, namely: 1) Vespers, 2) Liturgy of the Catechumens, and 3) Holy Communion of the faithful.
During Lent, according to ancient tradition, a complete abstinence from food, a true fast, was observed by the faithful until 3:00 P.M. from Monday through Friday (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, No. 13). But before taking their evening meal the faithful used to assemble in their churches for Evening Prayers which, eventually, developed into liturgical services of Vespers. These then form the first part of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, concluding with the entrance and singing of the vespertine hymn, 0 Joyful Light.
The second part, the Liturgy of the Catechumens, is a reminder of the public instructions given to the candidates for Baptism, called Catechumens. These instructions were given during Lent by the bishop in church every day, and were combined with special prayers, exorcisms and blessings. They also were often attended by the faithful. Thus, the second part of the Presanctified was formed , consisting of scriptural readings, solemn blessing with the incense and candle, and intonation “The light of Christ enlightens every man who comes into the world” (In. 1 :9), as well as the Ekteny of the Catechumens with its prayer (unfortunately now-a-days omitted). All these elements are so many remnants of the venerable institution of the ancient Catechumenate.
The third part of the office consists of a solemn communion with the Holy Eucharist consecrated at the regular Divine Liturgy ahead of time. It begins with the Ekteny of Supplication and follows the patterns of the Divine Liturgy, except for the Anaphora with the consecration. After the prayers for the faithful there follows the Great Entrance with the Presanctified Gifts, while the hymn Now the Powers of heaven is being sung. Then the Ekteny of Impetration and the recitation of the Our Father prepare the faithful for Holy Communion.
The prayers of thanksgiving and the prayer behind the ambo with a dismissal properly conclude the services.
4. On the Lord’s Day the Christians of the first centuries and, later, the monks of the desert assembled for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which was followed then by the “meal of love” (agape). On this occasion they received Holy Communion and also took some consecrated particles for their daily communion during the week in their homes. This custom is known in church history as private or monastic communion, and was confirmed by a ” long-continued custom” (cf. St. Basil, Epistle 93). In the same epistle St. Basil mentions that ” in Egypt every person, even the laity, has the (Holy) Eucharist in his own home and receives it with his own hand every time when he wishes to communicate.”
Later, because of some abuses, private communion was forbidden . To the question, “Whether the monk or nun can take Holy Communion by themselves?,” 8t. Theodore 8tudite (d. 826) replies:
” It is not licit even to touch the Holy Gifts by those who are not priests, except in the case of necessity.” (cf. P.G., 99, 1661 ) Thus private communion was gradually substituted with a solemn communion in church, which subsequently developed into the Holy Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.
The famous Byzantine canonist, the hieromonk Matthew Blastares, in his work Syntagma, comments:
” During Lent we partake of the Presanctified Gifts towards evening in order to strengthen ourselves against the assaults of the enemy (of our salvation). Certainly spiritual food is most sui table in a spiritual combat. For this reason it was ordered that the office of the Presanctified be mystically celebrated in the evening.” (cf. P.G., 145, 149) The prayer behind the ambo, recited at the end of the services, beautifully describes the spiritual fruits of the Presanctified Liturgy. For this reason the entire prayer is reprinted here on the backcover.
It should also be noted that according to the ancient, if not apostolic ” unwritten tradition” (8t. John Damascene in P.G., 95, 69), on Good Friday no Liturgy, not even that of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated in the Byzantine Rite churches, since, according to the testimony of 8t. Gregory the Great (d. 604), on that day ” our Lord offered Himself in sacrifice. And His sacrifice is sufficient for the salvation of all the faithful.” (cf. PL, 78, 893) The only exception made is when the feast of the Annunciation falls on Good Friday. The reason of this exception was recently given by Pope John Paul II: “If the Word of God would not become flesh in the virginal womb of Mary then the passion and the death of Christ would not have been realized.” (cf. L’Osservatore Romano, March 26, 1980, p. 2)