Symbolism, Ritual and Revelation: Part 4

The Errors of Those Who Ignore the Liturgists

by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

When we mention “liturgists,” many people think of those whom we used to call “typikon commandos.” There was a humorous reference to them,

“What is the difference between a terrorist and a typikon expert?

You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

This is not what we mean by “liturgist.” We are referring both to Saint James the Apostle who gave us the Christian Liturgy, and to Saints Basil the Great and John Chrysostom who standardised the Liturgy throughout the Byzantine Empire, and also to the recognised authorities on the liturgical services, such as St. Symeon of Thessaloniki (the foremost expert and commentator of the divine services) and Nicholas Kavasilas. There are also completely authoritative comments on liturgical services in the Didascalion.

Let us examine just one very severe and critical error. There are a number of bizarre and grotesque tales about the meaning of the memorial services which we serve on the third, ninth and fortieth days following the repose of an Orthodox Christian. Of course, the services are not served for everyone. Soldiers who die in battle, people with no close relatives, those who perish at sea and those who repose far away from any Orthodox Church often have neither an Orthodox Funeral service or any of the memorials. If we were to accept some of the bizarre stories, some told even by saints of the Church, then we must conclude that all those people were taken to hell by demons only because the services were not said for them. This is the “magic formula” theory of the divine services.

The doctrinal statement of the Orthodox Church about these memorial services is quite clear, and expressed both by Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki and in the Didascalion. We serve a memorial on the third day because of the resurrection of Christ on the third day, opening the way for the resurrection of all mankind. We serve on the ninth day because the soul, unable to receive its reward of recompense until it is reunited with the body is kept by the nine orders of angels. We have a memorial service on the fortieth day because Christ ascended into heaven on that day, both Body and Soul, thus revealing that all will likewise ascend body and soul together.

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Despite such authoritative declarations of the Orthodox Church, we hear many gruesome tales about what takes place during the days after the repose of a person, and why they must be “prayed into heaven,” or else the demons will snatch them. We hear tales of wandering souls needing to be prayed to rest and a number of other ghost stories. The adepts of such tales can rummage about in the early Church writings and find some disconnected “proof texts” for such stories and never stop to consider the irreconcilable internal contradictions that this creates in the established doctrine of the Orthodox Church.

They never refer to the Memorial of Funeral services themselves, because they contain not a hint of any such fantasies. Nor do they ever refer to the commentaries of the recognised Liturgists of the Orthodox Church, because they give explanations that are diametrically opposed to such outlandish ideas as the Aerial Toll Houses, wandering souls or the necessity of never omitting a single word of these service, because to do so would endanger the soul (the “magic formula” theory). It is well, therefore to pay attention to the recognised Liturgists such as Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki and others rather than following the bizarre stories.

The symbolism of the memorials and funerals is quite profound and direct, and it is in this symbolism that we become spiritually educated and edified about the mystery of death and resurrection.

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