By Fr. Moses Samaan – Parish Priest from St. Marina Coptic Orthodox Church, California, USA.
As Orthodox Christians, our departed loved ones are never far from our minds and the consciousness of the Holy Church. From the very beginning, the Church established special prayers and memorials for the repose of their souls, a practice which stems from our faith that those who have departed continue to live in Christ and that the connection between the living and dead does not cease to exist after their departure. Rather, this bond of love continues perpetually through reciprocal prayers: we pray for our departed loved ones and they pray for us.
Perhaps one of the least understood and most neglected of these memorials is the Third Day Memorial (or Third Day Commemoration), which is a special prayer service for the soul of one who has departed on the third day after his death. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is called panikhida. We can trace this tradition back to some of the earliest writings of the Church. In the Apostolic Constitutions1, for example, we read the following in Book VIII:
Let the third day of the departed be celebrated with psalms, and lessons, and prayers, on account of Him who arose within the space of three days; and let the ninth day be celebrated in remembrance of the living, and of the departed; and the fortieth day according to the ancient pattern: for so did the people lament Moses, and the anniversary day in memory of him.2 And let alms be given to the poor out of his goods for a memorial of him.3
I suspect the reason this memorial has fallen into disuse is because people themselves have adopted a distorted and overly optimistic belief as to what happens to the soul after death. More times than I can count, I have heard people consoling one another in the minutes after death has visited them with clichés such as, “I’m sure he is in a better place now” or “He was such a good person; he’s definitely in Heaven now.” Not only are such words trite and without any real meaning, they actually contradict the faith of the Church.
To illustrate this, consider the significance of the oftentimes neglected Third Day Memorial.
The theological significance of the Third Day Memorial comes from its obvious connection to the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, which occurred three days after His Death on the Tree of the Cross. Our Lord’s pure soul, which was united with His Divinity, separated from His pure flesh, which also remained united with His Divinity, and descended into Hades in order to destroy death and the power of death over us. It was there in Hades that He released all of the captives of death who believed in Him. Thus, the Third Day Memorial connects us with the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who, by His life-giving Death and Resurrection, began the resurrection of our departed loved one.
In addition to this theological significance, the Third Day Memorial also has a physical significance. In the ancient world, it was believed that a soul, which had separated from the body, could potentially be reunited with the body within three days. In fact, within three days of the moment of death, people were oftentimes not sure if the person was really dead. Of course, modern medicine has now defined the moment of death more precisely, but in those days, they did not have the benefit of modern medical instruments. We have a letter attributed to St. Athanasius that gives us a glimpse into this understanding: “How is it that certain people…die, have visions, and come back to life after two or three days to relate them? This is because their soul has not altogether left the body.”4 Notice how there was a belief that, within three days, a person could come back to life because the soul had not fully left the body. The ancients also believed that the body did not begin the process of corruption (i.e., returning to dust) until the third day. So long as there was a possibility for the soul to fully reunite with the body within three days, they believed the body would not decompose. Against these ancient beliefs, we better understand the gloriousness of our Lord’s raising of Lazarus in John 11. In that story, our Lord purposefully delayed returning to Bethany until Lazarus was already dead and in the tomb four days. The significance of this timelines is obvious: our Lord waited until after that three-day period had elapsed and it was clear to everyone that the process of corruption and decomposition had begun; this is why Martha told Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days” (Jn 11:39). Our Lord manifested the power of Divinity and raised Lazarus from the dead despite the fact he had been dead four days and the natural process of decomposition had begun. For all of these reasons, we can appreciate why the Holy Church arranged a memorial on the third day after death.
Furthermore, the Third Day Memorial has a mystical significance that relates to the state of the soul at that time. In the famous story of Abba Makarios of Alexandria and the angel who explained to him several aspects of the mystery of death, we learn that, for two days after death, the soul remains on earth:
The soul is left for two days with the angels, the ones who have taken it away, in order for it travel with them and go wherever it wishes. If it craves its body, it goes near it for a time in the tomb; it sometimes also goes for a time close to its near and dear ones, wherever it was accustomed, and these two days pass in this way while it flies about, circulates and seeks out those who love it, just like a bird seeking its nest. In the same way a virtuous soul likewise goes into those places where it customarily practiced its good actions. 5
On the third day, however, the soul moves on, as the angel explained,
“When on the third day there is an offering in the church, the guardian angel lessens the sorrow the soul of the deceased experiences upon separation from the body. This is the result of the petitions and praise offered in the Church of God on its behalf…On the third day, the One Who rose from the dead on the third day directs that, in imitation of His Resurrection, the Christian soul ascend in order to bow down before God.”
In this passage, we learn that, on the third day after death, the Holy Church prays a memorial service in order to give comfort to the soul that has been separated from its body. At the same time, our Lord Jesus Christ calls the soul to the heavenly habitations so that it may worship and adore Him. On the third day the body is committed to the earth, and the soul ascends to heaven: “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ec 12:7).
Now, if we were to examine the actual prayers of the Third Day Memorial in the Coptic Orthodox Church, we would see a lot of what we discussed come to life. For example, consider the words of the Verses of the Cymbals hymn: “Your mercies O my God are countless and exceedingly plenteous are Your compassions.” If, indeed, as we learned above, one of the purposes of the Third Day Memorial is to give comfort to the soul after its departure from the body, it makes perfect sense why we would entreat God’s mercy and compassion with these words.6
Moreover, consider the three Psalms to be prayed by the priest in this service, which is arguably the only unique aspect of the service, since the rest of it follows the structure of the Raising of Incense. The first Psalm reads:
Save me, O God; for the waters have come in to my soul. I am stuck fast in deep mire, and there is no standing: I am come in to the depths of the sea, and a storm has overwhelmed me. I am weary of crying, my throat has become hoarse; mine eyes have failed by my waiting on my God (Ps 68:1–3). For I have suffered reproach for Thy sake; shame has covered my face. I became strange to my brethren, and a stranger to my mother’s children (Ps 68:7–8).
Again, imagine the soul having been separated from the body and in need of comfort. These words make perfect sense in light of that reality. A soul that suddenly finds itself in a new state of being, and for the first time, sees not only the beauty of Paradise the angels, but also the terrible and grotesque reality of the demons and Hades could very well pray, “Save me, O God; for the waters have come in to my soul. I am stuck fast in deep mire, and there is no standing: I am come in to the depths of the sea, and a storm has overwhelmed me.” A soul that has only existed while united to a body could most certainly proclaim, “I became strange to my brethren, and a stranger to my mother’s children” after its separation from the body. Consider the words of the second Psalm:
Render a recompence to Thy servant: so shall I live, and keep Thy words. Unveil Thou mine eyes, and I shall perceive wondrous things out of Thy law. I am a stranger in the earth: hide not Thy commandments from me. My soul has longed exceedingly for Thy judgments at all times (Ps 118:17–20).
How glorious! Once again, the soul separated from its body proclaims, “I am a stranger in the earth…My soul has longed exceedingly for Thy judgments at all times.” Consider the third and last Psalm of this memorial service:
In the multitude of thy mercy hear me, in the truth of thy salvation. Save me from the mire, that I stick not in it: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and from the deep waters. Let not the waterflood drown me, nor let the deep swallow me up; neither let the well shut its mouth upon me. Hear me, O Lord; for thy mercy is good: according to the multitude of thy compassions look upon me. And turn not away thy face from thy servant; for I am afflicted: hear me speedily. Draw nigh to my soul and redeem it (Ps 68:13–18).
In this Psalm, we find a prophetic image of what happens to the soul after its separation from the body. The grotesque demons surround it and begin to accuse it of all manners of sin. As St. Basil the Great explained,
Let no one deceive you with empty words; for destruction will come suddenly upon you; it will come like a storm. A grim angel (i.e., a demon) will come to take and drag violently the soul that has been tied to sins; and your soul will turn toward here and will suffer silently, having already been excluded from the organ of mourning (the body). O how you will be troubled at the hour of death for yourself! How you will sigh!
Meditate on this reality and what the Church is praying. A soul surrounded by grotesque demons accusing it can certainly proclaim, “Save me from the mire, that I stick not in it: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and from the deep waters.” A soul that dreads being pulled down into the darkness of Hades can certainly say, “Let not the waterflood drown me, nor let the deep swallow me up; neither let the well shut its mouth upon me.” A soul that seeks mercy and defense from the Lord can certainly pray, “And turn not away thy face from thy servant; for I am afflicted: hear me speedily. Draw nigh to my soul and redeem it.” These words are entirely consistent with one of the troparia of the Eleventh Hour of the Agpeya (Horologion) in which we address the Most Holy Theotokos and pray, “And when my soul departs from my body, defeat the conspiracy of the demons and shut the gates of Hades lest they might swallow my soul, O you blameless bride of the true bridegroom.”
In light of what the Holy Church teaches concerning what happens to the soul after death, we should be absolutely speechless before the work of the Holy Spirit in arranging these Scriptural readings in the Third Day Memorial. Not only did the Church arrange for these Psalms to be prayed, She also arranged the Gospel passage from John 11, the raising of Lazarus, which we discussed above.
After considering all of these teachings and Scriptural readings, does it make sense for us to console people with clichés after their loved one departs? Do phrases like, “He’s in a better place now” or “He’s definitely in Heaven” make any sense in light of how the Church is praying? We have to be careful with these trite phrases, even though they stem from our desire to comfort the family in any way possible. There are better ways to comfort the family during their time of loss, the best way being prayer, which is what the Holy Church guides us to do. Everything we have considered above reminds us that the soul needs our fervent prayers more than anything. It is not “in a better place,” but as the Psalms above teach us, it is “stuck fast in deep mire,” “weary of crying,” “a stranger to my mother’s children,” and “afflicted.”
Will that soul ultimately end up in a better place? We hope so. But in the meantime, let us be sober and pray.
- The Coptic Orthodox Church largely does not accept the Apostolic Constitutions due to Arian influences, but I nonetheless quote it here to point out the early consciousness of the Church in commemorating the departed.
- Deut. 34:8
- Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., “Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,” in Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies, trans. James Donaldson, vol. 7, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 498.
- Pseudo-Athanasius, Questions to Antiochus, 127, PG 28, 677.
- Macarius of Alexandria, Revelation au sujet des ames: commentelles sont enlevees des corps. Text and Trans. A. Van Lantschoot, “Revelations de Macaire et de Marc de Tarmaqa sur le sort de rarne apres la mort’: Le Museon, 63, 1950, pp. 176-181.
- It should also be noted that these very words are prayed as part of the Offices of the Midnight Praise and Morning Praise. Essentially, we pray the same words before sleep (which is a microcosm of death) and after we have awoken by the grace of God. This same hymn is chanted also in the funeral service.