In the Orthodox Church the practice of celebrating 40 consecutive Divine Liturgies is an ancient Tradition. The Late Elder Cleopa tells of a miraculous story of a priest who celebrated 40 Divine Liturgies for his supposedly dead brother who was in fact alive and a prisoner of war.
I want to relate a story to you. France was Orthodox until the year 1054, as was Italy. The Roman Catholics separated from us in 1054, in the great papal schism when our Church was torn apart because of papal reforms.
Before that time, there was a priest in France (which was still Orthodox) who had a brother in the military. France wa at war with Mauritania (French Africa), right on the other side of the Gibraltar, toward Liberia. At one time it was a Kingdom. So the French were there fighting against the Mauritanians, on the other side of Gibraltar, in Africa. The French priest’s brother went to Mauritania with his military regiment. At that time war wasn’t like it is now with atomic bombs and planes, canons and guns; then they fought with Swords, like in the days of Stephen the Great, with swords and arrows.
The French thus went into Mauritania to fight this great battle between the European armies and those in Africa. Even though the French won the battle, many of their soldiers were captured by the Mauritanians, amongst whom was the priest’s brother. The priest was from Marseilles, a French port which is on the Mediterranean Sea. The priest did not know that his brother had fallen prisoner, and when the other soldiers returned to France at the end of the war, he asked them, “Have you seen my brother?” “Father, I think he died in all the carnage of the battle. Bodies were laying like tree stumps –The Battle was so bad- and I think that he died, poor man.”
The priest, with a BROTHER’S LOVE, decided to serve the Divine Liturgy for Forty days in which he specifically commemorated his Brother. However, the priest’s brother was not dead, but rather a prisoner, and he was bound with chains in a prison with many others who were also chained. The priest would be serving Divine Liturgy at about 10:00 in the morning, and at that exact time all the chains would fall off of his brother, leaving him completely free.
The other prisoners said, “What is happening with you? Why do those Chains fall off of you? Are you some kind of wizard?”
“No, I don’t know anything about magic stuff.”
“Yeah right!, You don’t know magic!”
All of his chains would break and fall off every day at 10:00. The guards would chain him again and the next day the chains would break and fall. Another set of chains, and another set broken like dust.
“This Guy is a real Wizard! He’ll just walk out of prison when he wants, look, the chains can’t hold him!”
No One understood what was going on, and they would ask Him,
“What kind of magic do you have? Do you have some magical amulet hidden in your shirt or in your pants?”
Saying this, the guards would strip him of his clothes. “Tie me up naked, if you don’t believe me!”
They did exactly that, and the next day, the chains would again fall off of him. The guards were baffled and asked each other, “Where does he hide his magic? If we knew how to do what he does, we could escape from anywhere!, “Now where do you hide your magic?” He insisted, “I don’t know magic.”
“Then what religion are you?” they asked, since they were all Moslems.
“I am a Christian. I believe in Christ. I don’t know any incantations because I believe otherwise. My brother is a priest in my homeland of France, and I think that he is serving the Liturgy now and removes a particle for me at Proskomedia, thinking that I am dead. If I WERE dead and in hell, I would be unbound even there, like I am here. I think this is what is happening, but I don’t even know for sure.”
“How long is this going to happen to you?”
“Our practice is to serve forty Liturgies. You will see that for these forty days, the chains fall off of me.”
“After that, what will happen?”
“I don’t know what will happen, except that I will be delivered from your hands.”
“How? You won’t slip out of our hands!”
“I believe that God would deliver me even if I were in hell, thanks to the forty Liturgies; and he will certainly deliver me from your hands here.”
“You’ll see what kind of supervision we put you under then!”
The guards figured out when the Forty days would be up, and did not put chains on the Man during that time, “It’s useless to chain him because during these forty days they just break apart and fall off of him!”
On the Fortieth day, they were all keeping watch over him. They put double bars on the doors, bound him in chains again, and set a guard just for him, “Don’t take your eyes off of him. Today is the fortieth day and he claims that he will leave here!”
As the guards were watching him, suddenly they beheld that the roof of the prison split open and a hand descended, took the prisoner by the hair of his head, and he was gone. Where did he go? He was deposited on the porch of his house in Marseilles within a moment from the time he was lifted out of prison.
The Guards were asked, “What Happened!?”
“Christ came. We saw a hand,” (They did not know that it was the angel of the Lord, not Christ himself.) “He snatched the prisoner from us and we fell down trembling. No one could have even grabbed him by the foot.”
“How did he get out?”
“Through the roof of the prison, and then it closed back up again.”
One of the guards said, “Do you see how powerful the Christian faith is? Do you see the strength of their Christ? It didn’t matter how much you guarded him, but he took him when He wanted!”
When the priest saw his brother, he said “My Brother! You have come home! They told me you died. Today I finished serving the fortieth Liturgy in which I removed a particle for your soul.”
The former prisoner said, “You did the right thing, Brother, for if I had been in hell, you would have delivered me from there. Since I was still on Earth, you brought me out of prison. May God reward you. Listen to what happened to me…” and he proceeded to tell his brother about the chains.
So you see how strong those prayers are during the forty Liturgies when one is remembered at the Proskomedia.”