Saturday is the day which the Church has set aside for the commemoration of faithful Orthodox Christians departed this life in the hope of resurrection to eternal life. Since the Divine Liturgy cannot be served on weekdays during Great Lent, the second, third, and fourth Saturdays of the Fast are appointed as Soul Saturdays when the departed are remembered at Liturgy.
In addition to the Liturgy, kollyva (wheat or rice cooked with honey and mixed with raisins, figs, nuts, sesame, etc.) is blessed in church on these Saturdays. The kollyva reminds us of the Lord’s words, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
The kollyva symbolizes the future resurrection of all the dead. As St Simeon of Thessalonica (September 15) says, man is also a seed which is planted in the ground after death, and will be raised up again by God’s power. St Paul also speaks of this (I Cor. 15:35-49).
It is customary to give alms in memory of the dead in addition to the prayers we offer for their souls. The angel who spoke to Cornelius testifies to the efficacy of almsgiving, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4).
Memorial services for the dead may be traced back to ancient times. Chapter 8 of the Apostolic Constitutions recommends memorial services with Psalms for the dead. It also contains a beautiful prayer for the departed, asking that their voluntary and involuntary sins be pardoned, that they be given rest with the Patriarchs, Prophets, and Apostles in a place where sorrow, suffering, and sighing have fled away (Isaiah 35:10). St John Chrysostom mentions the service for the dead in one of his homilies on Philippians, and says that it was established by the Apostles. St Cyprian of Carthage (Letter 37) also speaks of our duty to remember the martyrs.
The holy Fathers also testify to the benefit of offering prayers, memorial services, Liturgies, and alms for the dead (St John Chrysostom, St Cyril of Jerusalem, St John of Damascus, etc.). Although both the righteous and those who have not repented and corrected themselves may receive benefit and consolation from the Church’s prayer, it has not been revealed to what extent the unrighteous can receive this solace. It is not possible, however, for the Church’s prayer to transfer a soul from a state of evil and condemnation to a state of holiness and blessedness. St Basil the Great points out that the time for repentance and forgiveness of sins is during the present life, while the future life is a time for righteous judgment and retribution (Moralia 1). St John Chrysostom, St Gregory the Theologian, and other patristic writers concur with St Basil’s statement.
By praying for others, we bring benefit to them, and also to ourselves, because “God is not so unjust as to forget your work and the love which you showed for His sake in serving the saints...” (Heb. 6:10).