Remembering Memorials

Monday, May 29, is Memorial Day in the United States, a date to remember those who died in service to our country as well as all those who served in the armed forces and have already passed away.   In the Orthodox Church, we frequently do memorials for departed loved ones and for the faithful who have already departed this earth.

Fr. Alexander Schmemman explains the Church’s understanding of a memorial:

Commemoration, remembrance, and memory are all translations of the Hebrew word zikkaron, memory. However, the Hebrew “memory” is not, as it is for the modern man, a passive faculty, the mere ability of man to remember. Rather, it is to re-live in imagination that which no longer exists, and from which a person is separated by time, distance, or death. “Remembrance,” “memory,” is an active and above all a divine faculty, a divine power. To sum up an exciting aspect of biblical faith, everything that exists does so because God keeps it in his memory, because he remembers it. God remembers us, and therefore we are alive. Death is a falling out from God’s memory, from God’s remembrance. “What is man, that thou remembrest him?”

This divine remembrance is truly life-giving, and this life-giving remembrance is bestowed upon the Church as her foundation, her life. It is bestowed upon her because the Church is the Body of Christ, because we are members of his body, of his flesh and bone. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Eucharist is the zikkaron, the memorial of Christ. But because Christ is the true life of all life, the Eucharist is also the memorial and remembrance, the keeping and preserving in life, of all those who are “in Christ.” We remember in him the creation of the world, and lo! In the Eucharist, the heavens and the earth are restored to us as being full of his glory.

(The Liturgy of Death, pp. 128-129)

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Historical Note on Memorial Saturdays

“Saturday of Meatfare week is dedicated to the memory of ‘our fathers and brothers, all the Orthodox Christians who fell asleep throughout the ages.’ This is a universal commemoration of all the  dead, which we shall find again on the Saturday before Pentecost. Thus we find such a commemoration and the beginning and the end of the moveable cycle.

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The first indication of this universal commemoration of the dead on Saturday of Meatfare week appears in the Typikon of the Great Church (9th-10th century). It is possible that it was instituted in connection with the commemoration on Meatfare Sunday of the last judgement. The Typicon St. Alexios the Studite (11th century) describes an ordo of the office very similar to what we celebrate today.

Bishop Afanasii (Sakharov) believed that, during these two days, the Church prayed in a more intense way for the repose of all the dead, familiar and stranger, known and unknown, of every age and circumstance, of all times and all peoples, of all who have died since the beginning of the world. According to him, this is the reason the Church put aside the commemoration of saints from the Menaion, in order to dedicate itself fully to prayer for the dead. Indeed, in contrast with other Saturdays, when the commemoration of the of the dead follows the glorification of all the saints, here the memorial of the dead takes up the entire focus of the liturgical celebration…

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These rubrics reflect an ancient practice, attested to by Canon 51 of the Council of Laodicea [363-364AD], which instructs that the memory of the martyrs should not be celebrated during the forty days of Lent, but on Saturdays and Sundays. Theodore Balsamon (c. 1140-c. 1195), the great Byzantine canonist, already considered that this canon concerning the commemoration of martyrs applied equally to the commemoration of the dead.

(Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded, pp 147-148, 186)

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