by Rev. Romanos V. Russo
photos by Milton Baroody
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 Sundays 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 Christians 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 Easts 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:
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Tags: Eastern Christianity Prayers/Hymns/Saints Easter