Today we are celebrating one of the most fundamental and most consoling truths of Orthodox Catholicism: that death is not the end of life, but the beginning of eternal life. Holy Tradition testifies that, from the earliest days of the Church, Christians have prayed for the dead. The days of commemoration varied although, over time, the Church fixed certain days so that for example, on Saturdays during Great Lent, which we call Souls Saturday, we commemorate the dead. In similar fashion, we gather together on the Saturday before Pentecost, as we do today, to commemorate and remember the dead.
In our Italo-Greek tradition, on this day, and also on the Feast of All Souls, which is observed on November 2nd, after the Divine Liturgy and Memorial Service which follows, the faithful visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried. Afterwards, they gather with other family members and share a meal and memories of those who have died. These days are not sad occasions, but ones of prayer and remembrance and hope.
In the Office of the Parting of the Soul from the Body, which is read when death is imminent, we hear the words: “Go forth from this world, O Christian soul, in the name of God the Almighty Father Who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, who suffered and died for you, in the name of the Holy Spirit, Who was poured out upon you. Yes, go forth, O faithful Christian! May you live in peace this day and may your home be with God in Zion, with Mary the Ever-Virgin Mother of God, with St. Joseph, her most chaste spouse, with all the angels, and with Sts. Peter and Paul and all the apostles, martyrs and saints. May you return to your Creator who formed you from the dust of the earth, and may the most holy Theotokos, together with the whole host and court of heaven come to meet you as you go forth from this life; may you see your Redeemer and Savior face to face and live with Him in eternal happiness and joy.”
In this prayer we commend our loved ones to the care of Almighty God and start them on their journey to meet the Lord. It is also the time when we begin praying unceasing for them, that God will have mercy and compassion on them and be merciful to them in judgment. It is the constant teaching of the Church since Apostolic times that the departed can be helped by our prayers, offerings and good deeds. Our great Father among the Saints, St. John Chrysostom, in speaking of the faithful departed, reminded his people: “Let us assist them according to our power. Let us think of some advantage for them, small though it be, but let us assist them. How and in what way? By praying for them, by asking others to pray for them, and by constantly giving alms to the poor in their behalf!” (Homily on Philippians 3, 4).
It is of great consolation for us, the surviving relatives and friends of our faithful departed, to be able to help them and thus remain united to them by a bond of everlasting love. St. Ambrose of Milan, preaching at the commemoration of Emperor Theodosius on the fortieth day after his death in 395, consoled those in attendance at the memorial service with these words, “I love the man and I will not abandon him until, by my tears and prayers, I shall lead him into the Holy Mountain of God (Psalm 2:6), where there is life eternal!” (Funeral Oration on Theodosius, 37).
The custom of offering prayers and sacrifices for the departed comes to us from the Old Testament. Holy Scripture praises the custom as holy and wholesome or pious, as it is written in the Second Book of Maccabees, Chapter 12, Verse 45: “it is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thing to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins.”
In the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, the commemoration of the dead is considered as one of the main works of mercy. St. Paul prayed for his devoted friend Onesiphorus, that the Lord “grant him mercy” as he stands before God’s judgment seat. ( 2 Timothy 1:18).
All the early Liturgies of the Church, including the most ancient one, the Liturgy of St. James, contain a prayer for the for the departed. In the Divine Liturgies of St. Peter the Apostle, St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great are also included. St. John Chrysostom interprets this in these words: “Not in vain did the Apostles order that remembrance should be made of the dead in the awesome Mysteries (i.e., the Liturgy). They knew that great gain resulted to them (the deceased), and great benefit. For when the whole assembly of the people stands with uplifted hands and that awesome Sacrifice lies displayed, how shall we not prevail with God by our entreaty for them? And this we do for those who have departed in faith!” (Homily on Philippians 3,4).
The Apostolic Constitutions, written in the 4th century, prescribed that during the Divine Liturgy, the deacon should remind the faithful to pray for the deceased, saying: “Let us pray for our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in Christ, that God, the Lover of mankind, Who has received their souls, may forgive them every voluntary and involuntary sin, and may be merciful and gracious to them, placing them in the land of righteousness, where there is no pain, sorrow or lamentation.” (Apostolic Constitutions, VIII, 41).
In the Byzantine Church, we commemorate the deceased every day at the Divine Liturgy immediately after the Consecration of the Holy Gifts with the petition: “Remember, O Lord, all those who have departed this life in the hope of resurrection unto life eternal, N.N., and grant them rest where the light of Your face sines upon them.” (Liturgies of St. Peter the Apostle and of St. John Chrysostom).
In the liturgical calendar of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church, Saturdays are dedicated, in a special way, to prayer for the deceased. Following St. John Damascene, the Synaxarion supplies us with the following instruction: “The Sabbath (Saturday) in Hebrew means rest, since on that day God rested from His work. (Genesis 2:2-3). We make a remembrance of the deceased on that ‘day of rest’ for they are ‘resting’ from all their earthly cares.”
When commemorating our departed, we constantly implore God to give them eternal rest since, according to the Scriptures, to enter into God’s rest means to join Him in an eternal life of happiness. (Hebrews 4:3-11; Revelation 14:13). St. Ambrose explains this by saying: “it is a great rest which fulfills the prayer of the living, a most glorious promise.” (Oration on Theodosius, 37).
In the Italo-Greek Church, as in all Byzantine Churches, on the Saturday before Pentecost we commemorate “all the departed souls since Adam.” By the Descent of the Holy Spirit, commemorated on Pentecost Sunday, the economy of our salvation was completed. Since the will of God is that “all men be saved” (I Timothy 2:4), therefore the day preceding the Feast of Pentecost is set aside as a day of prayer for all the deceased so that they be included in the salutary work of Christ.
From the beginning of Christianity, local Churches kept registers of their living members as well as those who departed. These registers were wooden tablets made of wood, ivory, or precious metals artistically decorated with carvings and bound together by rings. They are known as “diptychs,” taken from the Greek word “diptychon,” which means “anything folded in two”. These were used in Church to commemorate the living and the dead at the Divine Liturgy since the fourth century.
In the Byzantine Church, these dyptichs played an important role since the names of heretics and the excommunicated were removed from them and, by the same token, these were excluded from the liturgical prayers. They came into disuse sometime during the fourteenth century and, eventually, they were replaced by official lists of the deceased members of individual families issued by the pastor of a parish. These were called “grammata,” meaning a written letter or document. The list of deceased members of a family, made in booklet form in our Italo-Greek tradition, are called “piccolo libro ricordo” or “little remembrance book” and are used to commemorate the deceased at the Liturgy of Prothesis (Preparation) at the Divine Liturgy and the memorial services on the Souls Saturdays during Great Lent, as well as at the memorial service conducted on the Saturday before Pentecost.
The custom of announcing the names of the deceased during the liturgical services can be traced back to the first centuries of Christianity. Already in the fourth century, the practice was strongly defended by St. Epiphanius as a “firmly established tradition” in the Church. In his Panarios,, he writes: Concerning the ritual of reading the names of the deceased, what can be more useful or suitable; what can be more worthy of admiration?” (Panarios 75, 8).
This venerable custom was transmitted to us by our ancestors as a part of our beautiful spiritual heritage. Every year, twice a year, families in our Church give the lists of their departed loves ones to their priest with the request that they be mentioned at the services held for the deceased on the Souls Saturdays of Great Lent. These lists are kept in a special small hand-carved wooden reliquary that is kept on the Altar next to the tabernacle. On Holy Saturday, this reliquary is placed near the tomb of Our Lord.
The lists given for today’s commemoration of the faithful departed are on the Altar of Prothesis in the reliquary and will be carried in Great Entrance, after which they will be placed next to the tabernacle, where they will remain until the memorial service which will be held after this morning’s Divine Liturgy. St. John Chrysostom assures us that: “It is a great honor to be worthy of mention, while the celebration of the Holy Mysteries is going on.” (Homily on the Acts 21, 4).
As you know, I have always encouraged everyone, especially all families who have lost loved ones, to attend all the prescribed memorial services on the Souls Saturdays of Great Lent and that of today because by your and their presence and personal prayers and by receiving Holy Communion, you strengthen the bond of love with those who have gone before us and indeed keep their memories everlasting and eternal.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, after celebrating the funeral services for his brother Caesarius, concluded his eulogy with the following words: “Part of my funeral gift is now completed. The remainder we will pay by offering ever year, as long as we live, our honors and memorials for him!” (Oration VII, 17). We also should emulate St. Gregory by remembering our departed loved ones, especially on days such as today, as long as we live, and point out to those coming after us the wholesomeness of this beautiful and praiseworthy custom of praying for and remembering our departed loved ones.
In the burial service according to the Byzantine rite, the Church places the following words on the lips of the deceased, as we sing the hymns prescribed in bidding our departed loved one our final farewell: “Come, all you that love me and bid me farewell, for I shall no longer walk with you nor talk with you, since I am going to my Judge, Who shows no favors and rewards or punishes everyone according to his deeds. Therefore, I beg and implore all of you, pray for me continually to Christ our God that, on account of my sins, I may not be doomed into the place of affliction, but rather be granted a place where the light of life is shining!”
As is our custom, we will celebrate a memorial service for all of our faithful departed immediately after the Divine Liturgy. In addition to remembering our own loved ones, we will also be remembering today the forty-nine people who were killed in last Sunday’s terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida. As you know, it has been our custom since 9/11 to do this. Let us pray, beloved, that peace and harmony, tolerance and understanding will finally come to the human family and that these kinds of tragedies will disappear from among us forever.
May the memory of all those who have died be an everlasting remembrance.