Lent is a time to make the ordinary extraordinary again.
“Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding guests cannot fast as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come where the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.'” (Mark 2:19-20)
All Christians enter the season of Lent encouraged to intensify the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. A particular emphasis in the Byzantine tradition is the fasting of the Eucharist during the weekdays of the Great Fast (as Lent is called in the East). This may seem like a very peculiar practice to Westerners, however, the ancient practice of fasting the Eucharist emphasizes the festive nature of the Divine Liturgy and allows for a robust and joyful celebration of Pascha (Easter). It can be beneficial for all Catholics to contemplate the various traditions of Lent in the Church, and this explanatory article on the Byzantine-Eastern tradition of Lent encourages just that.
Each celebration of the Divine Liturgy (Mass) is a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and an encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus. Adoration is the Bridegroom entering the wedding feast. By its very nature, the Divine Liturgy cannot be mournful or penitential. While there are certainly penitential aspects contained in the various liturgies of the Church, these penitential elements give way to the exuberant joy of the Resurrection. He briefly said, “We cannot fast while the Bridegroom is with us.
It is for this reason that the apostolic practice of liturgical days during the weekdays of Lent has been maintained in the East. On liturgical days, the Divine Liturgy is not offered. In contemporary Latin Rite Catholic practice, the only liturgical day is Good Friday. For the East, all of Lent is liturgical, with the exception of Saturdays, Sundays and major feasts (i.e. the Annunciation). This is not to say that the East is devoid of the graces available through Holy Communion during the weekdays of Lent. On Wednesdays and Fridays, the service of the liturgy of the presanctified gifts is offered.
The text of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is attributed to Saint Gregory Dialogos (Saint Gregory the Great), who probably learned a version of this liturgy from his time as papal legate in Constantinople.
The Liturgy begins with Vespers and retains a solemn penitential character. The absence of a Eucharistic Prayer (Anaphora), as in the usual Divine Liturgy, helps to maintain a dark concentration. The liturgy is also celebrated in complete darkness except for the flickering of candles around the church. Holy Communion is distributed to the clergy and the faithful from the consecrated gifts of the previous Divine Liturgy. Presanctified gifts are processed around the church and in the central aisle. The faithful make a complete prostration at the passage of the sacred gifts.
Those who experience this liturgical service are struck by the solemn, dark and penitential character of the liturgy. While the resurrectional tone cannot be removed from any reception of Holy Communion, this theological emphasis gives way to the image of manna in the desert. Christ gives himself as nourishment for our spiritual journey through Lent, as a foretaste and promise of the full Easter joy to come.
The prayers preceding Holy Communion during the Presanctified Liturgy have a decidedly penitential tone:
You have seduced me with desire, O Christ, and with divine love you have transformed me. Consume my sins in an ethereal flame, and let me be filled with the pure delight of you, O merciful Lord, that leaping for joy, I may magnify your two advents.
How, I so unworthy, shall I enter into the splendor of your saints? If I dared to enter into the nuptial feast, my garment will reproach me for it, for it is not a wedding garment. Then I will be bound and cast out by the angels. In your love, Lord, purify my soul and save me.
Beloved Master, Lord Jesus Christ my God, let these holy gifts not become a judgment against me because of my unworthiness, but for the purification and sanctification of soul and body, and as a pledge of future life and kingdom. It is good for me to attach myself to God, to place in Him my hope of salvation.
(From the text of Liturgy of the Presanctified GiftsGreco-Orthodox recension)
Even in our liturgical exercise there is an important element of asceticism during Lent. The link between liturgy and asceticism is an important element to emphasize in our modern era. (Dr. David Fagerberg has a wonderful book called On liturgical asceticism but that’s for another time.) Often our celebration of the liturgy has become so casual that it excludes ascetic emphasis or has become so formal that it excludes joy, that we have become polarized in our liturgical approach. The liturgical cycle, maintained in the Christian East, allows a coherent movement of ascetic effort punctuated by the Easter taste. Weekly Presanctified Liturgies lead to the Sunday celebration of the Divine Liturgy – our fasting from the fullness of liturgical expression leads to the communal celebration of the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day. Byzantine churches use the Anaphora of St. Basil (as opposed to the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom used during the rest of the year) on Sundays in Lent.
The passage to the Anaphora of Saint Basil also marks a liturgical movement of penitential anticipation, in the sense of breaking with the usual during Lent. The Eucharistic Prayer (in fact older than the Anaphora of Chrysostom) is beautiful and marked by its emphasis on the history of salvation. Saint Basil begins in the Garden with the Fall but passes through the Old Covenant – “You [God] you have spoken by the mouth of your servants the prophets, you have produced great sighs by your saints who have pleased you in every age.
This movement gives way to the Coming of Christ – “And having cleansed us with water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, he gave himself up as a ransom to the death by which we had been held for being sold into sin; and by the cross he descended into Hades to accomplish all things, and loosed the fangs of death. Shortly after, come the words of institution and the epiclesis. The move to the Basilian Anaphora during the Lenten season can be called a kind of fasting, in that we break away from the usual and broaden our perspective in order to prepare ourselves to enter more deeply into what may have become familiar.
Overall, the Byzantine approach to the Eucharist during the season of the Great Fast is one of beauty, balance and organic progression. The bodily discipline of fasting extends to our Eucharistic participation. Bodily fasting is opened up and accentuated by spiritual fasting, and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts reveals to us a light from the prism of the Eucharist that we do not contemplate at other times. We approach the Eucharist with joyful sadness – sadness for our sins with a hint of the joyful reconciliation of Easter. We must hold back our joy until then! It is another type of fasting. Our Sunday celebration breaks with the routine of the year and, while Saint Basil’s prayer is filled with Paschal joy, it is buffered by the penitential reality of the need for the cross of Christ. Again, not that these elements are absent from other times of the year, nor from other liturgical expressions of the Church. All that is advanced, for the edification of our readers, is the ancient Byzantine-Eastern tradition of Lent as a point of contemplation for all Christians to accentuate your own Lenten journey.
Lent is a time to make the ordinary extraordinary again. Take what may have fallen into routine and make it a meeting point again. Exercise the plenitude of our rapid and bodily restraint in order to blossom in the plenitude of Easter joy.
Perhaps the balance of the Lenten liturgical cycle in the Byzantine East could have a positive influence on the West? I certainly believe that observing the “joyful sadness” of the East in our Lenten Eucharistic piety could help revive the Church’s teaching on Real Presence. At a time when so many professed Catholics do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, something must be done.
The link between belief and fasting is an important link. When we disconnect bodily preparation from our celebration of the Eucharist, we risk losing solemnity. When our reception of the Holy Eucharist becomes too routine, we risk regarding the Eucharist as a platitude. The Byzantine approach to Lent – with its organic progression from penance, punctuated by Easter panels – then blossoms into the full joy of the Easter Divine Liturgy and cries of “Christ is risen!” The link between the loss of belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ and his real presence in the Eucharist is a tragic loss due to the demonic attacks of modernism.
The ancient tradition of the Byzantine East regarding Lent is worth considering. It is neither better nor worse than the Western tradition. What needs to be done is for the Church to breathe through our Lenten journey with both lungs. If you are a Latin Rite Catholic and have never attended an Eastern Catholic Lenten service, give this a try. If you are Byzantine, go to the Stations of the Cross. I believe that the more we learn from each other and live liturgically with each other, the more we can recover much of what has been lost among the saving doctrines of our Faith.
[My thanks to Archimandrite Nicholas of Holy Resurrection Monastery for his assistance in writing this article.]