The Holy Forty Divine Liturgies ("Sarantoleitourgo")
During the forty day period prior to the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord*** it is a tradition for priests to celebrate daily the Divine Liturgy. The Forty Liturgies celebrated during this time are a great blessing not only for those who participate, but also for those commemorated among both the living and reposed. As St. Ignatius of Antioch writes: "Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith" (Eph. 13). The power of the Divine Liturgy isn't magical, but it is a manifestation of love and unity in Christ. It teaches us to forgive, to have love for one another, and to be united in Christ as one body. In such an assembly, where the living and reposed are commemorated, great blessings follow for all.
The Divine Forty Day Liturgies of the Nativity season on behalf of the living and reposed are a manifestation of the love we should have for one another as members of the Church. Nothing makes more real and present the love of Christ for mankind, who took on flesh for the salvation of sinners, then the daily offering of the Divine Eucharist for the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting of the living and reposed.
As St. John of Kronstadt writes: "In the Divine Liturgy is celebrated the Mystery of Love...[O perfect love! O love which embraces all! O strongest love! What can we offer in thanksgiving to God for His love for us? This love is found in the sacrifice of Christ, which is offered for the liberation of all from every evil...]"
And Elder Paisios advised regarding the need to pray for the departed: "Leave in your prayers room for the reposed. The dead can do nothing for themselves. The living can. Bring to the church prosphoro, and give the names of the reposed to be commemorated by the priest in the proskomede. Do also memorials and trisagia. But the trisagion without the Divine Liturgy is nothing. The greatest thing we can do for someone is Forty Liturgies. It would be good to tie it in together with almsgiving."
St. Symeon of Thessaloniki writes of the commemoration of the reposed during the Divine Liturgy: "During the Liturgy their portion which is placed on the diskos invisibly partakes of God, they are cleansed through the Sacred Blood and commune,...and they are consoled...and they rejoice in Christ."
And St. John Chrysostom writes: "You should not have any doubt whatsoever that the dead will benefit spiritually. The priest does not plead in vain in the Holy Prothesis or at the Holy Table for the reposed in Christ, with faith in the God-man Lord."
***Note: There are many places which also celebrate the Forty Divine Liturgies at other periods of the year (e.g. during the forty days after Pascha), while there are other places which, through the grace of God, celebrate the Divine Liturgy every day, for the healing, forgiveness and sanctification of the faithful.
On the benefit of the Forty Liturgies for the Departed
Elder Daniel of Katounakia (+1929) was originally from Smyrna, and at one point while he was a monk on Mount Athos he lived at Vatopaidi Monastery. One of his obediences was to travel on business for Vatopaidi to Smyrna where he stayed for nine months.
When Elder Daniel was a young boy in Smyrna, there was a simple Christian named Demetrios, who was known for his great virtue and piety, that would counsel and admonish him with heavenly wisdom. Upon his return to Smyrna the elder had heard that Demetrios was dead and he wished to meet with Demetrios' son George to ask him about it. He writes: "As soon as I arrived, I considered it my inviolable duty to first of all visit George, the son of the ever-memorable Demetrios. I questioned him minutely about the death of his father, of whose repose I had heard from many people."
George described the details of his virtuous father's death to Elder Daniel with tears in his eyes, yet one event was so remarkable that Elder Daniel decided to record it for our spiritual benefit.
Archimandrite Cherubim, in his book Contemporary Ascetics of Mount Athos (vol. 1, pp. 241-245), describes the event as follows:
Reaching the sunset of his earthly life, the divinely-enlightened Demetrios knew beforehand, by the grace of God, the day of his death. On that day he asked a certain devout, guileless, and saintly priest, Fr. Demetrios, to come to him.
"I will die today, my father," he said to him. "I beg you, tell me what I must do at this critical time."
The priest knew of his virtuous life; he knew that he had confessed, received Holy Unction, and had Holy Communion several times. Seeing his desire, however, it came to him to suggest the following:
"If you wish, give a command that after your death forty Liturgies should be served for you in a country chapel."
The dying man accepted the priest's suggestion with joy. A little while later he called his son.
"My son, I ask one favor. I ask that after my death you arrange to have forty Liturgies served for me in some church far away from the city."
"Give me your blessing, Father, and I will promise you to fulfill your wish," was the reply.
After two hours the man of God gave up his spirit. Without delay, his good son addressed Fr. Demetrios, not knowing it was he who had suggested the forty Liturgies.
"Fr. Demetrios, my father left me a command to have forty Liturgies served for him somewhere outside the city. As you sometimes stay at the Chapel of the Holy Apostles, i beg you to take on the labor of serving them. I will take care of your work and the expenses of the church."
With tears the priest replied: "My dear George, I myself gave this advice to your father, and I will always commemorate him as long as I live. I cannot serve a regular forty Liturgies, however, because right now my presvytera is a little sick. You will have to entrust them to another priest."
George, however, knowing Fr. Demetrios' great piety and his father's devotion to him, persisted until he persuaded him. The priest returned to his home and said to his presvytera and his daughters:
"I must serve forty Liturgies for the soul of the good Christian Demetrios. Therefore don't expect me home for forty days. I will be at the Holy Apostles the whole time."
He began willingly to serve the Liturgies. Thirty-nine went by without hindrance, and the last was to fall on a Sunday. On Saturday evening, however, he was seized by a terrible toothache which forced him to return home. He was moaning from the pain. His presvytera suggested that they call someone to extract the painful tooth.
"No," he answered, "I have to serve the last Liturgy tomorrow."
In the middle of the night, however, the pain grew so great that they were forced to summon a specialist to pull the decayed tooth. As he was bleeding, he decided to serve the last Liturgy on Monday.
On Saturday afternoon, George got some money ready to repay the labor of the priest, which he would give him the next day. In the middle of the night, as Sunday was approaching, he arose to pray. The absolute silence of the night was conducive to compunction. Later, growing tired, he sat on his bed and began to recall to his mind the virtues, gifts and wise words of his blessed father. The thought also passed through his mind: "Do the forty Liturgies really benefit the soul of the reposed, or does the Church mainly recommend them for the consolation of the living?" Just at that moment he fell into a light sleep.
He saw himself in a beautiful plain, of an indescribable loveliness one does not see the earth. He felt himself unworthy to be in such a holy paradisiacal place, however, and was overcome by fear, afraid that because of his unworthiness he would be cast out from there and thrust into the depth of hades. But the thought strengthened him: "Since the All-Good God deigned to bring me here, He will have mercy on me and lead me to repentance, for since I am still in my body I must still be living."
After this consoling thought he saw from afar a most pure and clear light, shining much brighter than the sun. He ran towards it and saw with unspeakable surprise a sight of indescribable beauty. Before him stretched a vast forest-garden, all wooded, fragrant with a wonderful and unutterable aroma. He said within himself: "This must be Paradise! Oh, what blessedness awaits those who live virtuously on the earth!"
Examining this other-worldly beauty with astonishment and delight, he saw a most beautiful palace of exceeding brightness and excelling architectural grace, whose walls shone more than gold and diamonds. It was impossible to describe it beauty in human terms, and he was speechless and amazed. Drawing closer - oh joy! He saw his father, light-bearing and shining, before the door of the palace.
"How did you come here, my child?" his father asked him with gentleness and love.
"I don't know either, Father. I realize that I am not worthy of this place. But tell me, how are you here? How did you come here? Whose palace is this?"
"The goodness of our Savior Christ, by the intercession of the Mother of God, whom I especially revere, vouchsafed me this place. I was to have entered into the palace today, but since the builder who is constructing it is suffering from bad health - he had his tooth extracted today - the forty days of its building have not been completed. Therefore I will enter it tomorrow."
After those words George awoke, full of tears and wonder, but also with some perplexities. For the remainder of the night he did not sleep, but sent up continuous praise and glorification to the All-Good God. In the morning he went to attend Liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Photini. Afterwards he took with him prosphora, blessed wine, and an unburnt candle and set out for the region of Mirtakia, where the Chapel of the Holy Apostles was located. He found Fr. Demetrios sitting in a chair inside his cell.
The priest welcomed him with joy, saying: "I also have just come from Divine Liturgy. Now the forty Liturgies are finished."
This he said so as not to grieve George.
George then began to describe in detail the vision he had in the night. When he came to the account of his father's entering was delayed because of the builder's toothache, the priest was overcome with fear, but also by wonder and joy. Standing upright, he said:
"My dear George, I am the builder who worked at constructing the palace. Today I did not serve Liturgy because I had my tooth extracted. See, the handkerchief in my hand is stained with blood. I told you a falsehood because I didn't want to sadden you."
Elder Daniel was deeply moved by this blessed narrative. At the end, George urged him to visit Fr. Demetrios, who at that time was working as a priest in the district of St. John the Theologian. The priest told him exactly the same story, and begged him to record such a profitable tale. This is what happened, as we found it among his manuscripts. At the end of it, Elder Daniel noted with his pen: "The above account I heard in the year 1875, in the month of October. This ever-memorable Demetrios reposed in 1869."
St. George Karslides on the Forty Liturgies
1. When he would Liturgize he would become another man. Those attending church would hear various sounds from the Holy Altar from his heavenly visitors. They would kneel and chant "Lord have mercy".
2. One day the Saint said to his chanter: "I had so many saints today that I didn't have enough room to fit them. We put Saint Panteleimon in one corner, because there was no room."
3. At one time demons bothered the Saint and would not allow him to do the proskomede. After the Liturgy he said: "I began these Forty Liturgies with stress. The demons would yell out the names so that I would not be able to commemorate them, and thus not allow them to be forgiven."
4. After a period of Forty Liturgies he was asked:
"Elder, were you tired to finish them?"
"No my child. It was a pleasure for me, as if I did one Vespers, because they were very good people. Your father had a rich table like Abraham."
Then the man thought: "We were so poor, to the point we were hungry, so where did our father find such a rich table?"
"Don't see things like that," the Saint corrected. "Maybe he did not have to give, but his soul wanted to give much, and God accounted it to him as if he did give it. Your mother is a servant of your father, because she was very tiresome and would sadden him, always complaining to him. But your father always wore a smile with much goodness. Among your relatives you had a blind girl, whom you forgot to write. She was pure and very good."
"But how did you know this?" asked the man in wonder.
"When I commemorate, she also comes to the kollyva, but she comes as a guest, and does not unite with the others. Now everyone went to their place and opened the road for you."
Source: Athonite Flowers (vol. 14). Translated by John Sanidopoulos. (http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/11/saint-george-karslidis-on-forty.html)