What is the significance of Kollyva and is it pagan?

To those who are new to the Orthodox Church, the ritual of the Kollyva raises many questions.  Where did this tradition originate, what is its purpose and is it even Christian.

There are differing opinions on the origin of Kollyva, but the etymology of the word suggests an most ancient usage, likely predating Christian times. This however can only confirm that the wheat grains were used and not that the Church has purposely “Christianized” a pagan practice, as some would like you to believe.  There are many examples of the Church using common objects as tools to teach the faithful. As an example of this, we can look at Saint Patrick using the shamrock as a way to explain the unity of the Holy Trinity, using the three leaves as an allegory to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

The kollyva is a very important item used in Orthodox worship. In the kollyva, the Church reminds us that the wheat symbolizes the Resurrection. From the Gospel of John, the Saviour teaches:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. (John 12:24)

Saint Paul uses this same imagery of the resurrection of the dead on the day of the Second Coming of the Lord:

But some [man] will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? [Thou] fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die: And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other [grain]: But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body. 1 Corinthians 15:35 :38

Thus, as the wheat is buried in the soil and disintegrates without really dying but is later regenerated into a new plant that bears much more fruit than itself, so the Christian’s body will be raised again from the very corruptible matter from which it is now made. In the General Resurrection, it will be raised not in its previous fleshy substance but in an incorruptible essence which “will clad the mortal body with an immortal garment”, in the words of St. Paul (I Corinthians 15:53).

Image result for wheat christian symbolWheat has become a powerful Christian symbol of the Resurrection.  Adding to this, the faithful will decorate the Kollyva with sweets and greens ( commonly parsley or mint) to remind us of the sweetness of paradise and that paradise is a place of delight, a place of verdure.

The prayer read at the blessing of the Kollyva

O Thou that hast brought all things unto perfection by Thy word, O Lord, and hast commanded the earth to produce fruits of every kind for our enjoyment and sustenance; Who with grains didst show the Three Children and Daniel to be fairer than them that in Babylon lived sumptuously: Do Thou, O supremely good King, bless these grains also together with these divers fruits, and sanctify them that partake thereof; for it is unto Thy glory, O Lord, that they have been presented by Thy servants, and in honour and memory of (Saints of the day or particular Saint), and also in memory of them that have finished their life in godly faith. And do Thou only Good, grant unto them that have prepared these things and celebrate this memory their every salutary request, and the enjoyment of Thine everlasting good things. By the intercessions of our All immaculate Lady Theotokos and Ever virgin Mary, of (Name of Saints), whose memory we also keep, and of all Thy Saints. For Thou art He that blesseth and sanctifieth all things, O Christ our God, and to Thee do we send up glory, with Thy Father Which is without beginning, and Thine All holy and good and life creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

St. Theodore Saturday and Kollyva as an offering to Saints

The tradition of blessing and eating Kollyva at the end of the first week of Great Lent is connected with an event in the reign of Julian the Apostate in 362 AD. The Emperor knew that the Christians would be hungry after the first week of strict fasting, and would go to the marketplaces of Constantinople on Saturday, to buy food. Therefore he ordered that blood from pagan sacrifices be sprinkled over all the food that was sold there, making it “polluted sacrificial food” (food “polluted” with the blood of idolatry), in an attempt to force upon the people the paganism of which he became an ardent supporter after renouncing the Christian faith.

St. Theodore the Tyro appeared in a dream to the Patriarch of Constantinople Eudoxios, ordering him to inform all the Christians that no one should buy anything at the market, but rather to boil the wheat (already called Kollyva) that they had at home and eat it sweetened with honey. This common food was used to save the Christians from defilement.

As a result, this first Saturday of Great Lent has come to be known as Theodore Saturday. In commemoration of this event, the faithful prepare a dish with the boiled wheat, mixed with different sweets.

Since then Kollyva, having become connected with celebrating the memory of saints, are brought to church and are ordained by the priest during memorial prayers known today as Memorial Services.