SATURDAY. A name that originates in pagan Roman astrology—“Saturn’s day.” Most languages of peoples that adopted Christianity kept the Hebraic precedent, referring to this day as Shabbat or Sabbath, the biblical day of rest instituted by God himself.
In the Christian Faith, Saturday/Sabbath is still a day of rest, but insofar as it has been fulfilled in Christ, who rested in death prior to his resurrection, which occurred the day after the Sabbath (and was thus named “the Lord’s day”). Saturday/Shabbat is the day the Church says special prayers for those who have fallen asleep in the Lord (this is what the word “cemetery” means: “a place/room for sleeping”) and for their rest until the general resurrection of all humans who will ever have existed.
Liturgically speaking, Saturday is dedicated to this theme. When a festal or saintly commemoration does not supersede them, the content and order for Saturday services clearly communicate this. However, this content is rarely experienced by the faithful who live in a secular environment, where the full cycle of daily services is not observed.
It is not entirely lost, however, as there are two Saturdays in the year with particularly significant commemorations of the dead. These Saturdays are called Psychosabbata, literally “Soul Saturdays” or “Saturdays of Souls”. The first in order is the Saturday before Meatfare Sunday, the second is the Saturday before Pentecost Sunday1. According to the Hemerologion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, these are commemorations of “our Orthodox Christian fathers and brothers throughout the ages who have fallen asleep,2” and, according to the Synaxarion of the Triodion, “in hope of the resurrection to life eternal3“.
The underlying theme, of course, is found prototypically in the commemoration of Great Saturday, the Saturday before Pascha—in other words, the commemoration of Christ’s time in the tomb: “this Sabbath is the most blessed one, on which Christ sleeps in the tomb, to yet rise on the third day4“.
“O God of spirits and of all flesh, who trampled down death and abolished the power of the devil, giving life to your world: give rest to the souls of your servants who have fallen asleep, in a place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment, from where pain, sorrow, and sighing have fled away. As a good and loving God, forgive every sin they committed in word, in deed, or in thought, for there is no one who lives and does not sin. You alone are without sin. Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and your word is truth.”Prayer from the memorial service
1 It has become a common practice for there to be two other commemorations for the dead held on the two Saturdays following the first Saturday of Souls (the Saturday prior to Meatfare Sunday): 1) the Saturday before Cheesefare Sunday, and 2) the Saturday of the first week of the Great Fast. However, these are clearly not intended to be “Saturdays of Souls” since they commemorate, respectively, 1) all those who have finished this life in asceticism, and 2) a miracle wrought by St. Theodore the Recruit involving kolyva (the boiled wheat dish associated with memorial services).
2 «πάντων τῶν ἀπ’ αἰῶνος κεκοιμημένων Ὀρθοδόξων Χριστιανῶν, πατέρων καί ἀδελφῶν ἡμῶν»
3 «ἐπ’ ἐλπίδι ἀναστάσεως ζωῆς αἰωνίου»
4 «Τοῦτο Σάββατόν ἐστι τὸ ὑπερευλογημένον, ἐν ᾧ Χριστὸς ἀφυπνώσας, ἀναστήσεται τριήμερος.» Oikos of the Matins of Great Saturday. See also the first three stichera of the Praises (trans. Fr. Ephrem Lash):
Today a tomb hold him who holds all creation in his palm. A stone covers him who covered the heavens with glory. Life sleeps and Hell trembles and Adam is being released from his bonds. Glory to your dispensation, through which you have accomplished all things and granted us an eternal Sabbath rest, your resurrection from the dead!
What is this sight that is seen? What is this present rest? The king of the ages, having accomplished his dispensation through suffering, takes his Sabbath rest in a tomb, granting us a new Sabbath rest. To him let us cry, ‘Arise, O God, judge the earth, for you are king for ever, and without measure is your great mercy.
Come, let us see our life lying in a tomb, that he may give life to all those who lie in the tombs. Come today, as we contemplate the Sleeping one from Juda, let us prophetically cry out to him, ‘Taking your rest, you lay down like a lion. Who will rouse you, O King? But arise by your own will, who gave yourself willingly for us. Lord, glory to you!