The Three Weeks of Commemoration
On this Sunday we commemorate our Deceased Priests. We celebrate this liturgy, and continue our remembrance during the following week. After that, we remember the Righteous and the Just, and then all the Faithful Departed. These three weeks comprise a sort of transition from the Season of the Epiphany, to Lent. They are indeed a preparation for the great season of mortification. There are no obligations of fast and abstinence during these three weeks, other than to abstain from flesh meat on Fridays.
The best way to think of these three weeks is to compare them with 1 and 2 November (All Saints and All Souls Days) in the Latin Catholic Church. They have two days, we have three weeks – an echo of the Maronite emphasis on remembering the deceased. The second week of the Maronite commemorations corresponds to the first of the two Latin feasts, All Saints Day. Then, our third week is the equivalent number of the second feast, All Souls. So, why do we have a first week? We do so because this is the theology of the Maronite Church: that the entire calendar begins with the Consecration and the Renewal of the Church. In its wisdom, the Maronite Church paints the background to the liturgical year and to the period of commemoration.
We begin our year with recalling that the Church is the medium through which the Word of God and His healing sacraments have come to us. And we begin this mini-Season by praying for the departed priests, because if they had not passed on the faith and the sacraments, we would not have the faith.
The Commemoration of Deceased Priests
To anticipate, this feast is not only about remembering deceased priests, it is just as much a reminder that the Christian priesthood is a participation in the eternal priesthood of Our Jesus Christ, the High Priest. The work of priests is for our eternal salvation, and although we only see the body of their hieratic work in this world, its roots and its highest fruit are in the Kingdom of Heaven. Our Christian life today is for our Christian life in eternity.
Of this icon, Fr Badwi wrote: “Our fathers, the priests, who preceded us to eternity continue their celebration there and preach the Bible upon the altar of the luminous world, surrounded by worshipping angels. All this happens in an eschatological scene, presenting the All-Powerful with the two eternal suppliants, the Virgin Mary and St John the Forerunner, surrounded by a crowd of saints and angels who carry trumpets and scales.” Let us unpack this.
First of all, we are shown in heaven, and even in that divine world there are levels. Enthroned in glory at the top, is the Lord. To His right is His blessed mother, and to His left, St John the Baptist, His cousin and forerunner. They are interceding for humanity. This is an important detail, because it links their action to the prayers of the faithful at each and every divine liturgy, and in the sacraments. Think of this icon when you next approach the sacrament of confession, and you will make the connection – just as you present your sins to the Lord through the priest, so too in the court of heaven you have powerful advocates joining their prayers to yours.
Next, in the lower level, but still in heaven, there is what Fr Badwi calls a “luminous altar,” perhaps because it is the colour of the evening sky. Standing upright at it, are two deceased priests who have been admitted into heaven (note the haloes around their heads) celebrating the divine liturgy. We know that the liturgy is celebrated in heaven because of the revelation to St John the Divine (see chapter 4 of the Apocalypse). They are concelebrating the service. One has the Gospel before him for the Liturgy of the Word, while the other – who is a bishop as his staff shows – has the chalice and paten for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The bishop may also be a monk, but since all Maronite bishops wear the monastic cowl, one cannot be sure. This bishop and priest stand for all bishops and priests.
The angels who are bending in reverence towards the altar hold the staves of messengers (the word mal’ak or “angel” once denoted “messenger”, being literally “the one who goes.”) They represent the fact that the Divine liturgy is celebrated as a result of and for the Word of God, and that angels are present whenever it is celebrated – even on earth. The default Maronite communion hymn reads: “The hosts of angels have come to stand with us at the holy altar …”
Fr Badwi says that the icon presents an “eschatological scene.” Eschatology is the study of the final days, the end of the world, the judgment, and the eternal life. The angels with the trumpets and scales are angels from the Book of the Apocalypse, heralding the last days with trumpets: they have scales in Revelation 6:5. These old-fashioned scales or balances are unknown today, on one side would be a placed a specific weight, e.g. two ounces, and on the other side, an object (often a precious object such as gold or silver). If the gold weighed less than two ounces, the weight would sink lower than the gold. When the two sides of the scales were balanced, then by measuring the weight, you knew how heavy the gold was. The gold in this case is our souls, and the weight is truth.
The priest is a mediator, a bridge, a channel, a conduit. But, and this is often forgotten, he is specifically a mediator, a bridge, a channel, a conduit for Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and not for some vague heavenly power. From that perspective, the priest is also a representative. This leads to my final point: the upper portion of the picture, at the throne of God, is reflected in the second half: Jesus is present on His throne, Jesus is present under the sacred oblations on His altar; Our Lady and St John intercede for us in heaven, and the bishop and priest do the same at the altar. This is one of the central truths of our faith – and a comforting and consoling one, if we could but meditate upon it.
Note: Sometimes people ask whether these three weeks belong to the Season of the Epiphany. They do not, and cannot: we do not use the Epiphany response to the Qadishat (we say “itra7am 3alayn” rather than “mshee7o det3amed men you7anon, itra7am 3alayn”), and wear different liturgical colours.