On December 27, 1866, our founders, Richard Meux Benson, Charles Chapman Grafton, and Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill took monastic vows not as members of the Society of St. John the Evangelist but as Mission Priests of St. John the Evangelist. Shortly after profession, Father O’Neill was sent out to India. He began the community’s work of evangelization which flourished and grew. Father O’Neill died shortly after reaching India, but his work was seminal and the Society remained in India into the 1960’s.
Father Benson was, in some ways, very much a product of his era. Raised in wealth and privilege, he attended Oxford University. There he came under the influence of Edward Bouverie Pusey, a leading light of the Oxford Movement.
Under Pusey’s influence, Father Benson began to break out of some of the assumptions that informed much of nineteenth century religious ethos. Questioning Christianity’s cozy relationship with state power, he came to view Constantine’s Edict of Milan and Christianity’s legalization within the Roman State as a first order tragedy for the Christian Church.
Differing from most of his contemporaries, Benson’s life-long desire to go to India was not based on some idea of bringing ‘heathens’ to Christ and civilization. Benson said that he wanted to go to India to meet the Christ who was already there. If, Hindu and Muslim people expressed interest he would share the Good News with them. But relieving human misery was foremost without any conversion quid pro quo in mind. Benson’s ideas about evangelization seem, in hindsight, visionary, even prophetic.
Today we observe the feast day of two brothers who were evangelists, Cyril and Methodius. “They became missionaries of Christianity among the Slavic peoples of Bulgaria, Great Moravia and Pannonia. Through their work they influenced the cultural development of all Slavs, for which they received the title Apostles to the Slavs. After their deaths, their pupils continued their missionary work. Both brothers are venerated in the Orthodox Church as saints with the title of equal-to-apostles.”
Born in Thessaloniki – Cyril around 827; Methodius sometime between 815 and 820. The brothers were scions of a high placed Byzantine family and their missionary work connected them closely to the interests of the Byzantine state and its rivalry with Rome for religious and political dominance in Eastern Europe. In Cyril and Methodius’s thinking, and as their subsequent careers would amply demonstrate, any dichotomy between state and religion was unknown. Christianity had, by this time, become almost entirely co-opted even subsumed to state interests. I think that Father Benson might say it often still plays that role.
“In 862, both brothers began the work which gives them their historical [and religious] importance. That year Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia requested that the Emperor Michael III and the Patriarch Photius send missionaries to evangelize his Slavic subjects. It is a common misconception that Cyril and Methodius were the first to bring Christianity to Moravia. Rastislav’s letter to Michael III states clearly that Rastislav’s people ‘had already rejected paganism and adhered to Christian law.’ In 863, they began the task of translating the Bible into the language now known as Old Church Slavonic and travelled to Great Moravia to promote it. They enjoyed considerable success in this endeavor. For the purpose of this mission they devised the Glagolitic alphabet, the first alphabet to be used for Slavonic manuscripts. The Glagolitic alphabet was suited to match the specific features of the Slavic language. Its descendant script, the Cyrillic, is still used by many languages today The language derived from Old Church Slavonic, known as Church Slavonic, is still used in liturgy by several Orthodox Churches.”1
When the pope realized what was happening on the eastern edge of Europe, he invited the brothers to visit him in Rome. “They arrived there in 868, where they were warmly received. The rivalry with Constantinople as to the jurisdiction over the territory of the Slavs would incline Rome to value the brothers and their influence.
Following his brother’s death, Methodius continued the work among the Slavs alone. He came increasingly under the influence of the pope and the Roman Church’s political establishment. He was made archbishop of Nitra by Pope John VIII in 879.”1
Byzantine missionary policy had a visionary quality. Even if converting the ruler remained central, with the religion of the people to follow, the Eastern Church allowed more sensitive adaptation to local conditions and language. Once Methodius aligned himself with Rome he was never able to secure permission to use the Slavonic liturgy. After his death, Methodius’ followers devised what became the Cyrillic alphabet.1 “It spread to the Eastern Slav lands of Kievan Rus’. Cyrillic eventually spread throughout most of the Slavic world to become the standard alphabet in Orthodox Slavic countries. Hence, Cyril and Methodius’ efforts also paved the way for the spread of Christianity throughout Eastern Europe.”1
From our perspective, much of the controversy around the form and language of the liturgy swirling around Cyril and Methodius and between Rome and Constantinople might seem fussy and off the point. But this was still in a time before humanism, the Reformation and the Enlightenment deformed our understanding of the nature of belief and what that entails.
Belief was and remains critical. We just read in Mark’s gospel, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”2 The modern rationalistic notion that belief constitutes intellectual assent to creedal statements is grossly at odds with both the meaning and the intent of Jesus’ insistence on belief. This is something that Cyril and Methodius, for all their compromises, still understood and practiced. Until the Reformation and the movement known as the Enlightenment that it inspired, belief had little to do with doctrinal statements and everything to do with possibility of the life changing effects brought about by “trust; loyalty; engagement; commitment”3 to the Good News preached by Jesus.
It’s a lot easier for mind and heart when we are able to read Mark’s text as, “The one who trusts, is loyal, engaged, and committed will be saved.”
We’ve lost that original meaning and the centrality of religious practice in getting us there. Liturgy was a contentious subject because people understood that it was in their participation in liturgical rites that they came to “belief.” In other words, people did liturgy in order to change hearts, not minds. The modern idea that participation in the church’s liturgical life is conditional on intellectual assent to religious doctrines would have seemed all wrong to them.
People performed ritual in order to establish trust, loyalty, engagement and commitment; in order to come to belief. That’s the real reason we are here this evening. We are doing ritual that we call Eucharist. That practice, repeated daily by some, is practically the same each time we do it. And we do it over and over and over again. We repeat the practice because, like Cyril, Methodius and Father Benson, we apprehend that in performing our ritual practice we come to believe; we perceive the mystery; we receive insight and then we are changed. Now, in this holy space, we step outside normative actions and thinking, enacting an ancient ritual.
When you come forward and stretch out your hands to receive the sacred Body and Blood remember that you are doing so in trust, loyalty and commitment; that you are pushing the very limits of your heart.
1. Saints Cyril and Methodius. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
2. Mark 16:16
3. Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Belief and History. Charlottesville, 1977.
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