Give rest, O Christ, among the Saints to the souls of Your servants, where there is no pain, no sorrow, no grieving, but life everlasting.
Kontakion of Saturday of Souls, Plagal of the Fourth Tone
What happens when people die in circumstances that do not allow for their passing to be properly commemorated in the Church? What if someone was in a faraway place, resulting in their not being granted the Church’s memorial service after their death? Do we cease to pray for those who fall asleep in the Lord simply because they are asleep in the Lord?
These are questions that many of us ask in regards to the Church’s teachings on the afterlife. We sometimes worry about the destiny of those we cared deeply for but departed this life at a time (or place) that resulted in their life not receiving the Church’s full prescription of memorial services, or simply because we still genuinely care about the state of their soul.
Thankfully, for Orthodox Christians, the answers to these questions are not ad hoc. We do not have to craft a method of addressing them that fits in with our preconceived notions of how things should be in accordance with modernity—we can rely on the tradition of Holy Scripture, the Holy Fathers, and the Saints, who developed thoughts on these matters over the last two millennia.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese states that, “the divine fathers, being so moved in their love for man, have decreed that a common memorial be made this day for all pious Orthodox Christians who have reposed from all ages past, so that those who did not have particular memorial services may be included in this common one for all.” They derive this from The Apostolic Constitutions, written in the latter half of the 4th Century, which instructs as follows:
“Let us pray for our brethren that are at rest in Christ, that God, the lover of mankind, who has received his soul, may forgive him every sin, voluntary and involuntary, and may be merciful and gracious to him, and give him his lot in the land of the pious that are sent into the bosom of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, with all those that have pleased Him and done His will from the beginning of the world, whence all sorrow, grief, and lamentation are banished.”
Many in modern, Western Christianity have latched on to the notion that once an individual has died, that is the end of their “salvation story”—their fate is set and nothing more can be said on the matter. Yet this is not what Orthodox Christians through the centuries have taught or believed. Drawing on verses such as Acts 17:31, II Peter 2:9, and Hebrews 11:39-40, The Church has understood that “the day of judgement” is a day that has yet to pass; it is a future event for all of us to prepare for.
So, just as we should pray continually for our brothers and sisters still with us every day, our prayers for the departed should not cease. But what does this mean in practice? What do we actually do for the Saturday of Souls?
Our first insight comes from the words chanted during a remembrance liturgy: “In a blessed falling asleep, grant, O Lord, eternal rest unto Thy departed servants and make their memory to be eternal!”
The often-heard phrase “memory eternal” goes beyond simply having fond memories of those departed, but relates directly to prayers such as this—appeals to the Lord for their eternal rest in Him. Saturday of Souls is the official declaration of this practice in that we openly recognize it as part of our reality.
They are not just a memory—their memory is what we actively engage with in our prayers for their standing with God.
This is a difficult concept to wrestle with, especially given our modern proclivity towards binary states. Someone is “either ___ or ___,” for example; we are quite adept at categorizing people or things in this or that classification.
How most of modern, Western Christianity views life and death follows naturally from this line of thought. People are either “up in heaven with Jesus” or “down there” and that’s the end of it. But, again, the Orthodox Church has never viewed these things so simplistically because it ignores the spiritual realities passed down through the apostles.
Saturday of Souls is another reminder of how big these concepts are and how we are still connected to them through those who have departed this life. Just as we owed them our love and respect while they were in this life, so too they deserve our prayers for eternal rest in the life to come, and for that day of judgement yet to pass.