Congratulations on completing the second week of Great Lent. As we noted last week, Great Lent’s main theme is repentance. The Church teaches that we can work out our repentance through three main methods—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Regarding almsgiving, it isn’t just monetary; it is a work of mercy to help those less fortunate. This goes beyond material things. The Church teaches that prayer—and specifically, prayer for the departed, is actually an act of almsgiving. This leads to what I’d like to talk about this week, prayer for the departed in the context of the Lenten liturgical tradition known as “Souls Saturdays.”
The Church understands that prayer for the departed is important, because it is an act of love, in which we are doing something for persons who cannot do it for themselves. We pray for the departed because they cannot pray for themselves. Holy Scriptures teaches us that such a practice is pious and beneficial to those who have departed before us.
We learn this specifically in 2 Maccabees 12:38-45, in which we read:
Then Judas retrieved his army and entered the city of Adullan. As the seventh day was dawning, they purified themselves according to custom and spent the Sabbath there. The following day, as was now necessary, Judas and his men left to gather up the bodies of those killed in battle, to bring them back to rest with their kindred in the tombs of their forefathers. But under the tunics of each of the dead, they uncovered sacred tokens of the Jamnian idols, which the Jews are forbidden by law to wear. So the reason these men died in battle became clear to everyone. Thus they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the hidden things. They turned to supplication and prayed that the sin they had committed might be completely blotted out.
The noble Judas exhorted his people to guard themselves from sin, for with their own eyes they had seen what happened to those who died in battle because of their sin. He then took up an offering from his solders amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, and sent it to Jerusalem to present as a sin offering. In doing so he acted properly and with honor, taking note of the resurrection. For if he were not looking for the resurrection of those fallen, it would have been utterly foolish to pray for the departed. But since he was looking to the reward of splendor laid up for those who repose in godliness, it was a holy and godly purpose. Thus he made atonement for the fallen, so as to set them free from their transgression.
There is so much theology that is packed in these few verses, but to sum it up, we know that when we pray for the departed, offer up the Holy Eucharist for the departed, and do good works on behalf of the departed, that they benefit greatly from this and may receive forgiveness of sins, are relieved in some way from any suffering they may be going through, and may be set free from attachment to sin. We should also note why this is so: it is because of Pascha, the promise of resurrection! It’s amazing; the theology of praying for the departed is directly linked to the hope of the resurrection, which we are journeying towards in Great Lent. Perhaps this is just the reason why the Church recommends and sets apart specific Saturdays for this holy practice!
We pray for the departed with Christ’s joyful resurrection in mind, knowing that death is defeated in Christ. Our bodies may rest in the grave, but our souls live on, awaiting the day of resurrection when our glorified bodies will join our souls. We are alive in Christ because of His glorious resurrection. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death! Death does not have the last laugh, so we pray for our departed brethren, and in doing so, we practice the giving of alms, performing works of mercy in which our departed receive aid and Christ’s resurrection is glorified.
One example of the benefits the departed receive by being prayed for is seen in the following story from the 6th Century A.D.:
St Gregory the Dialogist tells the following. A monk in his monastery did not keep his vow to own no money. When he died, the authorities, in order to set an example for the others, refused to allow him church burial, as well as prayer. This lasted for thirty days, after which the authorities relented and pitied his soul. For thirty more days, the church prayed and offered the bloodless sacrifice for him. On the last of these days, the departed man appeared in a vision to his brother, who was still alive, and said, ‘I have suffered cruelly until now, but now I am happy, and I dwell in the light; for today I have entered into communion.’ Thus the departed monk was spared punishment because of the soul-saving bloodless sacrifice had been offered for him. (Eternal Mysteries Beyond the Grave p. 186).
We should follow up this account with clarification from St. Gregory the Dialogist himself on this practice of interceding for the departed:
St. Gregory the Great, in answering in his Dialogues the question, “Is there anything at all that can possibly benefit souls after death?” teaches: “The safer course, naturally, is to do for ourselves during life what we hope others will do for us after death. It is better to make one’s exit a free man than to seek liberty after one is in chains. We should, therefore, despise this world with all our hearts as though its glory were already spent, and offer our sacrifice of tears to God each day as we immolate His sacred Flesh and Blood. This Sacrifice alone has the power of saving the soul from eternal death, for it presents to us mystically the death of the Only-begotten Son” (Dialogues IV: 57, 60, pp. 266, 272-3).
So why do we set apart Saturday as a day for prayer for the departed during Lent? Praying for the departed on Saturday is linked to the day in which our Lord rested in the tomb Himself, which is why Saturdays are set apart for the departed in the Church calendar. The second, third, and fourth Saturdays of Lent are dedicated to praying for our departed by commemorating them during the Divine Liturgy on Saturday morning, usually followed by a Panikhida after the Liturgy or before Vespers Saturday evening. The entire service is focused on praying for God’s mercy to be granted to the departed and that they be established in Paradise.
We pray for our departed with hope, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes, “Praying for the dead is not mourning and nowhere better revealed than in the connection between the universal commemoration of the dead with Saturdays in general, and the Lenten Saturdays in particular. Because of sin and betrayal, the joyful day of Creation has become the day of death; for Creation, by ‘subjecting itself to futility (Rom 8:20), has itself become death. But Christ’s Death restores the seventh day, making it the day of re-creation, of the overcoming and destruction of that which made this world a triumph of death. And the ultimate purpose of Lent is to restore in us the ‘eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God which is the content of Christian faith, love, and hope.” (Great Lent: Journey to Pascha p. 72-73).
By doing something for others that they cannot do for themselves (in this case, prayer for forgiveness), we are doing a work of charity. This is in keeping with the spirit of the Great Fast, which teaches us to be charitable to others. Indeed, we will be judged by our Lord based on our charity (or lack thereof) to others according to the Gospel (Matt. 25:31-46). This work of charity does not end with death. We know this because love does not end with death. In Christ, love conquers death, for God is love (1 John 4:8).
May the love we receive from God in Christ spur us on to works of love towards our brothers and sisters, including our departed loved ones; by doing so, we may help them, bless them, and work towards the salvation of all of our souls. It is a great blessing to pray for our departed. Truly God’s love knows no bounds, even after death, because of Pascha, our Lord’s glorious triumphant Resurrection.
In light of the hope of Pascha, let us pray for our departed and by so doing, keep the spirit of the Fast and be more conformed into the image and likeness of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Let us take advantage of these ‘Souls Saturdays’ and submit the names of our departed to our parish priests, that they may be commemorated in the Liturgy, in the Panikhidas, in our personal prayer rules, and so they and we may all come to salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
For Further Reading:
Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Fr. Alexander Schmemann http://www.amazon.com/Great-Lent-Journey-Alexander-Schmemann/dp/0913836044/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1458962162&sr=8-1&keywords=great+lent+journey+to+pascha
Eternal Mysteries Beyond the Grave by Archimandrite Panteleimon http://www.amazon.com/Eternal-Mysteries-Beyond-Archimandrite-Panteleimon/dp/0884652122/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1458962224&sr=8-1&keywords=eternal+mysteries+beyond+the+grave
How Our Departed Ones Live: The Experience of the Orthodox Church by Monk Mitrophan, translated by Archpriest John R. Shaw http://www.amazon.com/How-Our-Departed-Ones-Live/dp/088465401X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1458962284&sr=8-1&keywords=how+our+departed+ones+live
Life After Death by Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos, translated by Esther Williams http://www.amazon.com/after-Death-Metropolitan-Nafpaktos-Hierotheos/dp/9607070348/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1458962370&sr=8-1&keywords=life+after+death+hierotheos