We stand at the threshold of the Lenten spring. Soon, leaves will be budding, flowers blooming. Soon, thrushes will be singing, Paschal bells pealing. Soon, red eggs will be dyed, white vestments donned, festive tables spread, and Lenten fare—gone.
As Orthodox Christians, we know that just as there can be no spring without the foregoing winter, there can be no true feast without fasting, no spiritual joy without struggle and sorrow, no resurrection without a cross. To celebrate the feast of feasts, the Church wisely readies us with the fast of fasts, the longest and most arduous of the whole Church year. For in order to rise with Christ and live with Him, we must go by the path indicated by Him—to deny ourselves, take up our cross, to follow Him to Golgotha and die with Him.
For those who embrace this way of the Cross, it becomes clear how the rigors of the Fast help us to mortify our bodies, how the compunctionate hymns of the Lenten Triodion help us to tame our passions. But there is another step along Christ’s own journey to Pascha that the Church helps us to tread, through the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday: Holy Saturday, the descent into hades, the harrowing of hell.
Before Christ’s descent, hades was the land of forgetfulness, and the land of the forgotten—the unminded millions, the immemorial dead, whom no one among the living could remember, so long ago had they departed. And though perhaps a few righteous ones were consoled by the hope of the coming Redeemer, the dead in hades were apparently no less forsaken by God as by men.
But God could not look indifferently upon this woeful spectacle. He took flesh and suffered death, that the presence of His Person might be felt even there, in the dwelling of the dead; that His compassion might reach even to them, whom all others had forgotten; that He might take them by the hand, and draw them out of the dismal depths of hell into the bright mansions of paradise.
In the age after Christ’s coming, it is fitting that His body, the Church, continues His care for the dead, and observes a number of special services to commemorate them during Great Lent—in particular, a Saturday of Souls on Meatfare Saturday, and the second, third, and fourth Saturdays of the Fast, along with a daily Litia (Trisagion) service after Matins. By appointing these services, the Church prompts us to harrow the hell of our hearts with the plough of God’s lovingkindness, to plumb its depths and remember our dearly departed whom we may have neglected during the past year.
We invite you to join us in this labor of the Fast by submitting the names of your reposed loved ones, with an optional offering on their behalf. These names will be commemorated at every Liturgy, Pannykhida, Litia, and Matins for the Departed during the Lenten season.
The Saints universally witness to the efficacy of prayer and alms done on behalf of the dead; and their benefit extends also to the living. Pray for those you ask us to commemorate, continue to do acts of charity for them during the Fast, and you will begin to see new life blossom in your soul. Then we all, living and dead together, will be able to share the joyous Paschal greeting: Christ is Risen!