All Souls

There are 5 All Soul’s Saturdays. 2, 3, and 4 were on Saturdays during the Great Fast on days that had no other commemoration (e.g. the Miracle of Theodore and Akathistos). This is due to the liturgical law that fasting periods are more conservative and retain ancient customs. Saturday, the day our Lord was in the tomb was a day for remembering the departed, and that has persisted until the present in Lent.

The All Souls’ Saturday before Meatfare Sunday was due to the Church Year. Meatfare Sunday was the Gospel of the Last Judgment and, in a way, concluded the regular cycle of Gospel beginning with Pascha and lasting until the next Great Fast (beginning with Cheesefare Sunday). It was natural, therefore, to remember the departed as we pray for all before the final and last judgment. The fifth All Souls’ Saturday the day before Pentecost does not have clear origins. Some have said that it is the Christianization of the pagan feast of Rosalia, which remembered virgins who have died a violent death. Their souls were locked in trees and were released on this feast day.

The Christians generalized this into a general feast for all the departed. Some find this controversial, since the ideology is that Christians owe nothing to pagans. We have no concrete evidence one way or the other. It might be connected with All Saints, which in the Byzantine Church was the Sunday after Pentecost, but this does not explain the one week delay. At any rate, though Pentecost is the Christian feast of the 50th day, corresponding directly to the Jewish feast of the Mt. Sinai covenant (note the Upper Room), it was also called Rusalka (in Slavonic) since it happened closely to the pagan feast.

The All Saints feast was originally “All Martyrs,” namely those who died a violent death in witness to Christ. Rome originally celebrated it at the same time as the Byzantines, but moved it to November 1, the Dedication of the Pantheon, the pagan temple made into the Christian Church of the All Saints. In our faith and worship, though, this all has a clearly Christian meaning.

Third Week of the Great Fast

During this week, at Vespers, we read the story of the flood and the salvation of the righteous man Noah and his family. At first, this might seem to be the dark side of God, and on Friday, we heard: “When the Lord saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil, the Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved. So the Lord said: I will wipe out from the earth the human beings I have created, and not only the human beings, but also the animals and the crawling things and the birds of the air, for I regret that I made them.”

The story of the flood may have some historical basis, as a great flood in the Mediterranean basin in pre-history, but the story is iconic. (Noah could not have brought all the animal species on the ark.) The story tells us that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Christian faith has seen a positive image in the flood: it is the waters of baptism, which wipes out all sin (pride and rebellion against the divine plan) from the earth. It is these waters which carry us to salvation.

On the third Friday, then, we hear: “Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and choosing from every clean animal and every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar. When the Lord smelled the sweet odor, the Lord said to himself: Never again will I curse the ground because of human beings, since the desires of the human heart are evil from youth; nor will I ever again strike down every living being, as I have done,” and on Tuesday of the fourth week, the day before Mid-lent, “This is the sign of the covenant that I am making between me and you and every living creature with you for all ages to come: I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

The Great Fast is the coming of the Redeemer.

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras