The Pre-Sanctified Liturgy and the Seamlessness of Orthodox Faith and Life

This has been a most incredible week for this Orthodox wannabe. Last night I worshipped at my first Pre-Sanctified Liturgy (and a description here.), and experienced the depth of God’s presence, indeed of Heaven, such as I’ve never known.

The Pre-Sanctified Liturgy developed early. It is referred to in Church canons in the seventh century as already being an ancient practice. St. Gregory the Great, of Rome, is the one who revised (? I’m not sure) the Liturgy. The nature of the Liturgy is such that Eucharist cannot be celebrated during a time of ascetical fasting. Jesus said that while the Bridegroom is with them (his Apostles) they do not need to fast. Thus ascetical fasting, taking place over an extended period of time and Eucharist do not go together. (The fasting done prior to Eucharist is of a different nature.) But very early on, the practice of Wednesday and Friday Eucharist developed during the Lenten cycle. So, essentially, the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy is a Vespers service with the service of Communion added on. The Body and Blood have been consecrated on the previous Sunday, so no epiclesis is said, and the clergy partake of the elements in silence.

This being the first week of Lent, the fasting rigors, the extra services, and one’s own Lenten disciplines (under guidance of one’s spiritual father) are, well, frankly, invigorating and exhausting all at once. But in this first week, this “mini-boot camp” for the rest of Lent, the whole-cloth nature of the Orthodox Fath and life is made clear.

The fasting begins, and we now see for what it is the great lie that we can depend on anything or anyone other than God for our life. Our bodies are cleansed through fasting. Our hearts and souls are cleansed through the act of forgiveness with our parish brothers and sisters, our friends and our family. At the close of the first day, we sing the Great Canon and are not only instructed in the act of repentance, but actually do it. And lest we become forgetful of it, the Canon is repeated three more nights.

By Wednesday evening, the battle against the flesh (carried by the body) and against mind and spirit is fully joined. We wrestle and struggle with the old man. Our flesh incites our body to rebel by breaking the fast. Our thoughts attempt to lead our will to self-reliance and away from dependence on God and the prayers of the saints and our brothers and sisters in faith. It’s only the third day and we are battered and bruised.

So I drug my weary, impatient, irritable self to the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. The Psalms of Ascent were a blur to me. I couldn’t focus on them. However, all the “Lord, have mercy” petitions were much more heartfelt, let me tell you. Then there’s the prayer of St Ephrem, at whose three petitions full prostrations are made. I’m doing my best to focus and to pray, then a bell is rung and the Divine Gifts are brought to the altar. Suddenly, my attention is more focused. We prostrate ourselves. There are more prayers.

And then it happens.

“Now the Powers of heaven with us invisibly do worship. For, behold, the King of glory doth enter. Behold, the mystical sacrifice all accomplished is escorted in. Let us with faith and longing draw near that we may become partakers of life eternal. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.” Fr. Patrick sings of the invisible hosts praising God with us now. He sings of the King and Lord who is coming into our midst. And again. And again. And then, in solemn, silent procession, we all with foreheads on the the floor, the gifts are brought into the midst of the congregation and back through the royal doors to the altar.

Never in my life have I felt the connection to Heaven and to the Trinity as at that moment. I came as empty and as whooped-on as I’ve ever come to a service. And there, in a rickety old church building on Newport in Chicago, earth and heaven were joined as one, and God was mysteriously present with his people. Praying with us was my patron, St. Benedict, St. Gregory of Rome, St Symeon the New Theologian, and all the other saints whose feast day was yesterday. And not only them but all the saints, all who have gone before us, the great cloud of witnesses. Indeed, God himself deigned to come down to our mixed-up planet and to bestow his divine presence on the holy Gifts.

No wonder Russia became Orthodox. The envoys of Vladimir were right. I knew in my head they were. But now my entire being knows it.

After Liturgy, as prescribed by the Church, we ate a small meal (according to fasting guidelines). It helped. A lot. As did the relaxed conversations afterwards. “So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God.” (1 Kings 19:8).

God have mercy on me a sinner.