With Great Lent quickly approaching the Church is preparing not only to guide the living to repentance, but also to offer up prayers on behalf of those who have departed, an essential mark of Orthodox piety and worship. Saturday February 21/March 5 marks the first Soul Saturday, followed by the second, third, and fourth Saturdays of the Great Fast.
Today we too, in approaching the coffin of our holy Father Ambrose, Elder of Optina, rejoice with same inexpressible joy of Christ’s resurrection. Hymning the Tomb of our Savior, we say, “How life-giving, how much more beautiful than paradise, and more resplendent than any royal palace proved Thy tomb, oh Christ, the source of our Resurrection!” And in the troparion to St. Ambrose we sing, “As to a healing spring do we come to thee, Oh Ambrose, our father!”
The Saturdays of commemorations of the dead are called ancestral Saturdays (the first universal commemoration on Meat Fare Saturday, the second, third, and fourth Saturdays of Great Lent, Trinity Saturday, and St. Demetrius Saturday). Why do these take place specifically on Saturdays? What are the historical roots of this tradition? They were not all instituted at the same time.
Since throughout the Great Fast such commemorations as are performed at every other time during the year do not occur during the celebration of the Presanctified Liturgy, it is the accepted practice in our Orthodox Church to commemorate the departed on these three Saturdays, that the dead be not deprived of the Church's saving intercession. (The remaining Saturdays of the Great Fast are consecrated to special celebrations: Saturday of the first week to St. Theodore the Recruit; Saturday of the fifth week to the praise of the Theotokos; the sixth Saturday commemorates the resurrection of the Righteous Lazarus.)
Our grief for our loved ones who have died should be inconsolable and boundless, had the Lord not given us eternal life. Our life would be senseless if it ended in death. What benefit would there be from virtue, or from good deeds? Then they would be right who say, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”
It could be that a soul has left this world for the spiritual world without having drawn close to the holy inhabitants of that world through prayer; he may have appeared in that higher sphere as one entering a strange and unfamiliar land and may not find any spiritual 'relative' in this upper Sion. Take in the stranger; give rest to the beggar; give him a place to rest his head, and the Lord will grant the soul, for whom you do this, one of the bright dwellings in His Father's mansion.