For the Eastern Orthodox Church, Great Lent is the seven week period before Pascha (Easter) during which the faithful fast from certain foods and, more importantly, from sin. In order to enter more fully into the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, we repent through the traditional disciplines of prayer and fasting. Over the next several weeks, I will be posting articles in this series entitled “The Lenten Journey” in which I share resources, ideas, and meditations to help us all make ready for Christ’s resurrection–and our own.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church we are still in the bright sadness of Great Lent right now.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Orthodox Lent is the various services that are offered during this time: Akathist Hymns, Liturgies for the Departed, and especially Presanctified Liturgy.
What is Presanctified Liturgy?
Presanctified Liturgy is a gift given by the Church to the faithful during the spiritual rigor of Lent. In order for the faithful to have the spiritual strength to fast and repent during Lent, the Church offers a mid-week Liturgy with the Eucharist to those who wish to be fed. This ancient service dates back at least to the sixth century and has been an integral part of the Lenten fast for Orthodox Christians for fifteen hundred years.
A Presanctified Liturgy (or Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts) is an evening service that incorporates many of the characteristics of Vespers (such as some of the psalms and hymns) and offers Holy Communion. There is no consecration of the Eucharistic gifts during Presanctified Liturgy, instead gifts sanctified during the previous Divine Liturgy are used. Most churches offer a Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesdays during Lent, with some larger churches also having a Presanctified Liturgy on Fridays.
Describing the Service
Personally, I find the Presanctified Liturgy to be one of the most beautiful services in the Church year. The overall mood is very somber and reflective. The lights are dimmed so that the faithful may pray and worship with minimal distractions. All of the hymns are sung in haunting, minor tones. The entire body is involved as multiple prostrations are made, incense is smelled, hymns are sung, and the Scriptures are heard. The service itself is in the evening, so even the darkness outside seems to foster a contemplative, repentant atmosphere.
As mentioned before, because it is an evening service, Presanctified Liturgy has many of the elements of the Vespers service in it. I highly recommend this short video by the Orthodox writer Frederica Matthews Green if you want to learn more about the Vespers service, its history and origins, and its structure.
The service begins with psalms read, sung, or chanted. The specific hymns of the day that honor particular saints, feast of the day, or have a Lenten focus are also sung. Then the readings for the day–the first from Genesis or Exodus and the second from Proverbs or Job–are read.
In the second part of the service, the priest, choir and faithful sing “Let My Prayer Arise Before Thee Like Incense.” Here is a beautiful recorded version of it for you to listen to.
Then the Prayer of Saint Ephraim is prayed, and the preparation for communion begins. Before and during the Eucharist, the choir and people sing “O Taste and See.” I found this version to be just lovely.
Finally, after all the faithful receive the Eucharist, there are prayers of blessing. The faithful venerate the icons and leave. Many parishes have a common meal afterward since most people have been abstaining from food all day in preparation for receiving the Eucharist.
Why is Presanctified Liturgy Important?
With all of the pressures and time commitments placed on modern families, it can be difficult to make time for the Presanctified Liturgy. As children get older and have more activities and sporting events, it can seem nearly impossible to attend the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts.
However, I highly encourage all Orthodox Christians to make the time to attend at least one Presanctified Liturgy each Lenten season. And, the more the better!
Why? For these reasons:
- Taking the Eucharist multiple times in a week provides spiritual nourishment and strength needed for the increased intensity of Lent. Lent can be a time of spiritual attack as the evil one seeks to cause us to sin or cease repentance.
- The Presanctified Liturgy reflects the penitential and somber mood of Lent. If you only attend Divine Liturgy on Sundays, you will miss out on this important reminder of Lent’s purpose.
- The meditative and quiet atmosphere of the Presanctified Liturgy gives refreshment in the midst of a chaotic world. Once I became a parent, I noticed this even more. My soul longed for the quiet, the stillness of this midweek service. It quickly became a highlight of my week.
- Meeting together with other Christians encourages us in our Lenten journey. Where two or three are gathered, Christ is in our midst. Oh, how we need his presence.
The Family and Presanctified Liturgy
Perhaps you are convinced and would like to begin attending Presanctified Liturgy at your local parish. However, you have small children. What should you do?
There are a few options for you:
- Bring Them. In the Orthodox Church, children are full members and are considered an integral part of the Church. They are most heartily welcome at Presanctified Liturgy and may even enjoy the unique elements of the service. Many children particularly enjoy making prostrations, and will find that part of the Liturgy memorable. You can also read my post on Engaging Young Children in Church for more ideas. Now that my children are a bit older (5, 6, and almost 10), we all attend as a family.
- Bring Some of Them. If the thought of wrangling all of your young children for yet another service leaves you nearly in tears, know that you are not alone. It can be hard having little ones in church and often leaves no time for your own prayers and reflection. If this is you, consider bring only your older children. When my youngest children went to bed early, they became tired and crabby if they attended a Presanctified Liturgy. My oldest son, however, could stay up later and enjoyed the service. So, for a few years, my husband and I alternated weeks and took our oldest son with us.
- Go by Yourself. When my children were younger, I usually chose this option and felt no guilt about it. My husband and I took turns going to Presanctified Liturgy. We alternated weeks so that each of us could attend three times over the course of Great Lent. The other spouse stayed home to take care of the children. When I attended I generally chanted and sang in the choir, and my husband served at the altar. This enabled both of us to seek the spiritual refreshment that we needed to be godly parents to our children.
One Final Note for Non-Orthodox Readers
If you are not an Orthodox Christian but have kept reading so far, you are likely interested or intrigued by the idea of Presanctified Liturgy. Please know that you are most heartily welcome at any Orthodox Church. We would love for you to “come and see” and experience with us.
If you would like to attend a Presanctified Liturgy (or any other service of the Orthodox Church), you can do the following:
- Search for an Orthodox Church in your area. Google is a good place to start.
- Most parishes have a website. Look on it to find the day and time of the Presanctified Liturgy. If you can’t find it, you can call the church to ask.
- When you arrive, go on in. It may look different than any other church you’ve been to, but don’t be intimidated! We love Christ, love people, and are glad you are here.
- If there is a program or booklet, you may take one. This will have the order of the services, the hymns being chanted, and more. However, you may also decide just to observe and listen your fist time. That is fine, too.
- Don’t feel that you have to do any part of the service. If the idea of making prostrations (bowing down all the way to the ground) is uncomfortable for you, you don’t have to do it. People around you will be making the sign of the cross and venerating (kissing) icons, but again you are not required to do so.
- Understand that the Eucharist is only for Orthodox Christians. In the Orthodox Church, communion is reserved for Orthodox Christians in good ecclesiastical standing, who have prepared themselves through the disciplines of prayer and fasting. (For an article explaining why, go here.) At the end of the Liturgy, however, you are welcome to partake of some of the blessed bread. It is generally in a basket up at the front.
- Please stay for the meal. We would love to have you stay for the meal afterward, if one is provided. You can ask people questions, talk with the priest, or just enjoy some tasty food.
Let us all encourage one another during Great Lent, partake of the spiritual nourishment provided in the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts, and make ready for Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.
Do you have any questions about Presanctified Liturgy? What does your family do about services during Great Lent?