On the Saturday before the Sunday of the Last Judgement, which prepares us for the final week of pre-Lent, the Church holds the first of several universal funeral services. These “Souls Saturdays” have at least two purposes. First, they are to provide a funeral for all who have died without one: “Since many have died at sea, in the mountains or wilderness, in the air, or, because of their poverty have died without the prescribed services” (from the Synaxarion of Souls Saturday). The second is to remind us of our own mortality.
An Orthodox funeral both remembers those who have fallen asleep and begs God to have mercy on them. Of course in an Orthodox context, “remember” does not mean merely to call to mind–such as is common today in “life celebrations,” which have almost completely replaced funerals even in most Christian contexts. For Orthodox Christians to remember means to hold in the heart and actually be with that person in a spiritual way. “Remember” here has the same meaning as remembering Christ in Holy Eucharist: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” In Holy Eucharist we do not merely call to mind the facts of Christ’s life; rather, we commune with Christ, we are with Christ in a spiritual way. Similarly, remembering the departed is to be with them both in the tombs and in the Presence of God.
Yes, I said be with them in the tombs.
A consistent spiritual teaching of the universal Church has been that in the remembrance of death (ones own death and death generally) one gains perspective that helps him or her actually live the life of Christ while still in “this body of death,” to quote St. Paul.
As a priest and confessor I often hear people lament the apparent impossibility of living a holy life, a life in which we sin less, a life in which our attention is kept on the inner life even as we conduct the business of the outer life. One reason why I think this generation has such a problem even imagining that holy living is possible is that we live in a world in which death is hidden from us. We don’t kill our own food (or even know that someone had to kill the chicken in the sandwich I had for lunch); we send our grandparents off to die well drugged in institutions for that purpose; and then we “celebrate their life,” either before or after the cremation and the dispersing of the ashes wherever.
Our culture hides death, so the Life of Resurrection seems impossible to us. However, the Church will not let us forget. On this Saturday (and on three more Saturdays during Great Lent), the Church remembers all those who have departed from among us and the death that we must all pass through, the death that we are already passing through in anticipation of the Resurrection that we are already experiencing.
This is the mystery of the Christian experience. The meek are exalted and the proud are brought low; the dead live while those who live are constantly being given over to death. And there is nothing at all linear about the experience. I die that I may live that I may be given over to death and rise again. I am humbled in one area of my life even as I am raised up in another. Death is at work in me that life may be at work in others.
And so the Church prepares us for the arena of the fast (an expression used by several Fathers of the Church) by reminding us of death, which in a churchy sort of way makes sense. What but death could prepare us for the Resurrection?