In the Eastern Church it is customary to remember our departed brothers and sisters in a special way on the fortieth day after their death. We recall that after Christ our Savior rose from the dead, destroying death and conquering Hades, He appeared on many occasions to His disciples, especially to “the eleven,” i.e. the holy Apostles. And on the fortieth day He called them to the holy mountain, commissioned them to Baptize all nations, and to forgive sins through the Sacrament of Confession. Then, before their very eyes, He was taken up bodily into heaven where He is “enthroned at the right had of the Father.” His last words to us were: “Behold, I am with you always – even to the end of the ages.”
Recalling His glorious Resurrection and the fulfillment of His promise to remain with us through the Holy Church, the same Church calls us, after forty days, to put off mourning. At the end of the Divine Liturgy, the priest leads the faithful in prayers for the forgiveness of the sins of the departed servant(s) of God, and asks the Lord to admit his or her soul into the heavenly mansions.
A special dish called kolyva [or sweat bread with grapes] is blessed in remembrance of the departed, to be shared by the faithful in his or her memory. This dish is made of whole wheat berries, boiled, sweetened with honey, flavored with rose ware and spices, and decorated richly. The wheat serves as a reminder of the Good News of Christ our God regarding death – that “unless the grain die and fall to the ground, it will not bring forth new life.” The rose water reminds us that Christ taught that the flowers of the field are arrayed more beautifully than the mightiest king – yet we, His little ones, are more precious than they. The sweetness reminds us of the delights of heaven awaiting all those who follow the narrow way and live the life of a faithful Christian in this world.
Our Church tradition is replete with many such customs. If we do not understand them they easily become superstitious practices, or social occasions. Understanding them, they become for us a rich treasury from which we draw strength and knowledge to deepen our commitment to Christ and His Church, our only salvation.