Religious holidays punctuate the secular year to remind us of God’s grace breaking into ordinary time. As a member of the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America (OCCA) (a diverse jurisdiction that embraces both the Western [Latin] and Eastern [Byzantine] manifestations of the Church), today’s liturgical commemorations serve as an extreme paradoxical irony.
According to the Gregorian Calendar, the Western (Latin) Church celebrates the Great Feast of Pentecost. On the first Pentecost as recorded in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the gift of God’s Spirit gave the disciples a multitude of languages to proclaim God’s power. The feast celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit and the many languages in which God’s name is liturgically praised and in which God’s word is proclaimed. According to the Julian Calendar, the Eastern (Byzantine) Church commemorated the Feast of Saints Cyrill and Methodius, Equal-to-the-Apostles and Teachers of the Slavs.
Saints Cyrill and Methodius were sent to Moravia to evangelize the Slavs in their own language. In preparation for the task, Saint Cyrill with the help of his brother Saint Methodius and the students Gorazd, Clement, Savva, Naum and Angelyar composed a Slavonic alphabet and translated into the Slavic tongue the liturgical books, without which it would have been impossible to celebrate the Divine Services in the vernacular of the Slavic people. After completing the translations, the holy brothers set off to Moravia, where Pope Adrian II and his clergy welcomed the holy brothers with great honor. The pope created the Archdiocese of Moravia and Pannonia, and in doing so, made it independent of the German Church. The liturgical services in the Archdiocese began to be conducted in Slavonic rather than Latin. This aroused the malice of the German bishops, who insisted that liturgical services be conducted only in one of three languages: Hebrew, Greek or Latin. The German bishops asserted that it was by divine decree that only three languages were specially designated for liturgical purpose; the three languages in which the sign affixed to the redeeming Cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Judeans” was written. Saint Cyrill retorted: “You recognize only three languages by which to give glory to God, but The Prophet David sang: ‘Come to the Lord, all nations, praise the Lord all peoples, let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!'”
The German bishops were humiliated, but they became all the more bitter and complained to Rome. The holy brothers were summoned to Rome for a decision on this question. The pope installed Saint Methodius as Archbishop of Moravia to the dismay of the existing Latin clergy and affirmed permission to conduct the Divine Services in the Slavonic language. The pope also decreed that the books translated by the holy brothers to be placed in Roman churches and to celebrate liturgy in the Slavonic language. This took place in the year of 870.
At the order of King Louis, the Holy Roman Emperor (the Germanic Emperor of the West), however, Saint Methodius was soon deposed and cast into prison where he was cruelly tormented for three years. Eventually, when word of his imprisonment reached Rome, Pope John VIII came to his defense. At the command of the Pope, Saint Methodius was liberated and reinstalled as Archbishop of Moravia; however, he was again summoned to Rome in 879. A German priest Wiching accused Methodius of heresy and objected to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in Church Slavonic. In Rome, the Pope paralleling his predecessor, sanctioned the usage of Church Slavonic in the Divine Services. While in Rome, Wiching was nominated as one of the suffragan bishops of Moravia and continued to resist the leadership of Saint Methodius as his Metropolitan. Wiching in his disdain of the Greek bishop forged papal letters to Archbishop Methodius in hopes to incite disputes. When the Pope learned of these fallacious letters he immediately denounced them and admonished Wiching. In 1054, Pope Gregory VI prohibited the use of Slavonic “under any circumstances”. Subsequently, in 1061, Pope Alexander II decreed in his full authority and “in perpetuity” that the Liturgy could never again be recited in Slavonic, but only in Latin or Greek.
Moving forward approximately 954 years, Pope Francis said that celebration of the Mass in the language of the local congregation rather than in Latin allowed the faithful to understand and be encouraged by the word of God. “You cannot turn back. We have to always go forward, always forward and who goes back is making a mistake,” he told parishioners after commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first time a pope celebrated Mass in the vernacular following the Second Vatican Council. “Let us give thanks to the Lord for what he has done in his church in these 50 years of liturgical reform. It was really a courageous move by the church to get closer to the people of God so that they could understand well what it does, and this is important for us: to follow Mass like this,” he said. Authentic worship and liturgical celebrations should lead people to feel… “not like foreigners but as brothers and sisters” who are united in their love for Christ.
So, as our household of faith observes both traditions of the Church, we rejoice today in the many languages that proclaim God’s word. We pray that the Holy Spirit will move us beyond boundaries of language and nationality into God’s endless and extravagant love. We especially give thanks today for the courageous witness of the episcopacy and faithful of OCCA, who affirm the goodness of God’s creative diversity in humanity and offer hope and sanctuary to a world so in need of forgiveness, peace, and healing.
Unison Prayer of Thanksgiving*
O Spirit at work among us, we give thanks for the many ways to communicate our praise to you. We lift our voices to sing your praise and flex our hands to do your work. We proclaim your wonderful deeds through science, poetry, and everyday discussions. We witness through our faith and our finances. We use electronic technology and computers to share your word. These are just some of the “tongues” you give us to spread your good news to the world. Bless these gifts that we bring and multiply them in your purpose. Amen.
*United Church of Christ