Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts

The first and essential characteristic of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is that it is an evening service. From the formal point of view, it is a service of Communion following Vespers. At the early stages of its development it was deprived of the solemnity it has today so that its connection with the daily evening service was even more obvious. The first question, therefore, concerns the Vesperal character of the Liturgy. We know already that the Eucharist in the Orthodox tradition is always preceded by a period of total fasting. This general principle explains the fact that the Eucharist, different in this from all other services, has no fixed hour of its own, for the time of its celebration depends primarily on the nature of the day on which it is to be celebrated. Thus, on a great feast the Typikon prescribes a very early Eucharist because the Vigil fulfills the function of fasting or preparation. On a smaller feast with no Vigil, the Eucharist is moved to a later hour so that – theoretically, at least – on a weekday it ought to take place at Noon. Finally, on the days when a strict or total fasting is prescribed for the duration of the day, Holy Communion – the “breaking” of the fast – is received in the evening. The meaning of all these rubrics, which unfortunately are completely forgotten and neglected today, is very simple: the Eucharist, being always the end of preparation, the fulfillment of expectation, has the time of its celebration, or kairos, correlated to the length of the total fast. The latter either takes the form of an All-Night Vigil Service, or is to be kept individually. And, since during Lent Wednesdays and Fridays are days of total abstinence, the Communion Service, which is the fulfillment of that fast, becomes an evening celebration. The same logic applies to the eves of Christmas and Epiphany, also days of total fasting, and on which therefore the Eucharist is celebrated after Vespers. If, however, the eve of these feasts falls on Saturday or Sunday, which in the Orthodox tradition are Eucharistic days, the “total” abstinence is advanced to Friday. Another example: if Annunciation falls on a weekday of Lent, the celebration of the Eucharist is prescribed for after Vespers. These rules which to many seem archaic and irrelevant today, reveal in fact the fundamental principle of Orthodox liturgical spirituality: the Eucharist as always the end of preparation and fulfilment of expectation; and the days of total abstinence and fast being the most intense expressions of the Church as preparation, they are “crowned” with the evening Communion.

On Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent the Church prescribes complete abstinence from food until sunset. These days, therefore, are selected as appropriate for Lenten Communion which, as we said above, is one of the essential means or “weapons” for the Lenten spiritual fight. Days of intensified spiritual and physical efforts, they are illumined by the expectation of the forthcoming Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ, and this expectation sustains us in our effort, spiritual as well as physical; it makes it an effort aimed at the joy of the evening Communion. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence comes my help!”

And then, in the light of the approaching encounter with Christ, how serious and how grave becomes the day I have to spend in the usual occupations; how the most trivial and insignificant things, which fill my daily existence and to which I am so accustomed that I pay no attention to them, acquire a new significance. Every word I say, every act I perform, every thought passing through my mind becomes important, unique, irreversible, and either each is “in line” with my expectation of Christ or in opposition to it. Time itself, which we usually “waste” so easily, is revealed in its true meaning as the time of either salvation or damnation. Our whole life becomes that which it was made by Christ’s coming into this world – ascension to Him, or running away from Him into darkness and destruction.

Nowhere indeed is the true meaning of fasting and Lent revealed better or fuller than on the days of the evening Communion – the meaning not only of Lent but of the Church and of Christian life in their totality. In Christ, all of life, all of time, history, the cosmos itself have become expectation, preparation, hope, ascension. Christ has come; the Kingdom is yet to come! In “this world” we can only anticipate the glory and joy of the Kingdom, yet as Church we leave this world in spirit and meet at the Lord’s table where in the secret of our heart we contemplate His uncreated light and splendor. This anticipation is given to us, however, that we might desire and love the Kingdom and long for a more perfect communion with God in the forthcoming “day without evening.” And each time, in anticipation, having tasted of the “peace and joy of the Kingdom,” we return into this world and find ourselves again on the long, narrow, and difficult road. From the feast we return to the life of fast – to preparation and waiting. We wait for the evening of this world which will make us partakers of the “gladsome radiance of God’s holy glory,” of the beginning that will have no end.

Source: Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 1974.