In addition to the exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament at the feast of Corpus Christi, it is customary at other times of the year also. One of the best-known and formerly very popular of these is what is known as the “Forty Hours Prayer” or “Forty Hours Supplication.” This, like the feast of Corpus Christi, has a very distinct liturgical expression and is in fact a repetition and extension of the feast of Corpus Christi. It apparently came about first in Milan in something of its present form around the mid-16th century and from there spread to Rome and by act of Clement VIII, near the end of the 16th century it was established for the whole of the western church. 1 Its beginning in Milan are linked to a period of plague and civil strife and Clement’s institution of it as Rome was also motivated by trouble in the church. The prayer was apparently originally a public supplication for peace and public well-being. As such its beginning are rather similar to the eastern devotion to the Theotokos known as the Paraclesis, which is “a petition to the Theotokos, said at every catastrophe and affliction” 3 It apparently also had its beginnings as a prayer in times of trouble and civil danger. In the east, for such times, the church chose to do molieben services to a particular saint, especially if a miraculous icon was available or famous relic. Also possible would be the use of a canon or an akathist. The west choses to turn to Christ Himself and to focus that prayer on His presence in the Blessed Sacrament. It is merely a different expression of the identical phenomenon.
The origins of this prayer are also linked to the Holy Week watching at the sepulcher described earlier. It was originally celebrated at the beginning of Lent just before Ash Wednesday, but gradually lost its connection with Holy Week altogether and became a general devotion as it is now. 4
The prayer starts off with a votive mass of the Blessed Sacrament, which is in fact the Mass of Corpus Christi. Therefore the prayer starts off with the texts of Corpus Christi proclaiming again the nature of the Church’s belief regarding the Sacrament. Immediately after the Mass, there is a procession and exposition exactly as at Corpus Christi, except that it does not end that day but does on for somewhat more than two days. On the second day there is celebrated a votive Mass for peace. This recalls the beginning of the devotion in times of trouble. Votive masses are those in which the moveable propers, such as prayers, collects, and lectionary are chosen for a particular theme. In other words, one is able to choose a particular commemoration rather than take the one assigned in the calendar for any particular day; with the exception of certain major feast days which must always be observed.
After the second day Mass, the exposition continues until the third day when again the Mass of the Blessed Sacrament is sung and the exposition is ended with Benediction.
Again, we see that this devotion is more to be described as “liturgical” than “paraliturgical.” These two major liturgical commemorations focusing on the Sacrament should serve to set the tone for any other relationship with the Sacrament. Their didactic content, so rich in the faith and understanding of the Church, set out exactly what the understanding of the Sacrament should be even when receiving it throughout the year.
Finally we come to what are known as private visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Again, I believe, attention should be drawn to the fact that in the west since the early Middle Ages, the reserved Sacrament has been a very obvious feature in most western churches. In the east, this has not been the case since the introduction of curtains and iconostases. As we have noted before, the visible presence of the tabernacle became a focus for private prayer as the icon did in the east. Therefore, when one enters a western church for private prayer, he is always aware of the presence of the reserved Sacrament. Almost invariably these are taken from the services of Corpus Christi and therefore tend to reenfore the Church’s teaching and understanding concerning the Sacrament. Sometimes, however, these are composed by other pious individuals who are not so precise in their doctrinal and theological overtones.
One idea which is well-represented in such manuals is that Jesus’ humility in offering Himself in the Sacrament. While offering Himself to us, He is ignored and rejected by those who fail to discern Him or to receive Him. Quite a bit of literature has been written about this theme which, not too serious as it begins, has been carried to ghastly extremes. One can see that to think on all that God in Christ has done for mankind, and then to see how we fail to receive and thank Him for all of that is certainly a good, pious exercise. To carry it further, however, and lament about “Jesus abandoned in the tabernacle” or to pray to “Jesus, Divine Prisoner” 5 is shocking. One must always be careful, however, not to identify, what one finds in various devotional manuals with the teachings of the Roman Church. If this were so, our Orthodox Church would be seen to believe some rather odd things also.
Therefore, for an individual, while praying in Church to specifically honor the presence of Christ in the Eucharist does not seem to be an abuse. Indeed, something would seem to be necessarily due to Christ there present. Many Orthodox believe that the reverence they make while passing the Royal Doors is directed to the reserved Sacrament. It is possible that this is due to western influence, but as was noted at the very beginning of this discussion, from earliest times it was felt both in the east and the west that a certain reverence and honor was due to the reserved Sacrament.
In the Orthodox East, it is said that reverence paid to relics or icons reverts to the antetype and that honor paid to a saint is indirectly paid to Christ because the saint is a manifestation of Christ’s life and presence in the world. Reverence to the cross is also reverence to Christ and His savings passion and resurrection. Certainly, reverence to the Sacrament cannot be less possible than this. In a sense it is the direct presence of the Antetype. As the hymn of Corpus Christi puts it: “The Bread of Heaven puts an end to types.” 6 Honor paid to Christ’s presence does not need to “revert” anywhere. God is the ultimate - - the final goal.
As already stated, also, to meditate on the Eucharist, is to meditate on the fullness of salvation and the meaning of the Church. All is brought together in the Eucharist, all is present in the Eucharist, all is fulfilled in the Eucharist. We have no richer source for our piety than the Eucharist.
It has been claimed by some that Eucharistic devotion tends to be antithetical to reception of communion. This is not so, to hold one exclusively over the other is a reduction and a distortion. Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical letter, “Mysterium Fidei” treats both together, encouraging both veneration and reception of the sacrament as one reality. If one truly venerates Christ’s presence, he will surely desire to unite himself to it. True devotion to the Sacrament is only fulfilled in communion.
Devotion to the Sacrament can, therefore, be seen as a form of preparation for communion, constructing the faithful on the nature and meaning of the Sacrament, and exciting them to desire it. Nowadays, especially with our Orthodox return to more frequent communion, our people need to be taught about the Sacrament in a way that will not again frighten them away from the chalice. Perhaps a revival of sincere devotion to the Sacrament will both instruct and inspire our people to frequent and meaningful communion.
1 Lambing, p. 138; Fortescue, p. 333.
2 Lambing, p. 136-9.
3 Rev. Seraphim Nassar, Divine Prayers and Services of the Catholic Orthodox Church of Christ. (Syrian Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of NY and All North America, Brooklyn, NY, 1961) p. 45.
4 Fortescue, p. 333.
5 Triple Novena Manual. p. 69-70.
6 Divine Office, p. 1460.