Church of Serbia – 17/10/16
Sermon preached for the 100th anniversary of St. Vitus’ Day celebration at St. Paul’s Cathedral (Marking British–Serbian friendship and alliance in the Great War) on Friday 14 October 2016 by His Holiness Serbian Patriarch Sir Irinej
Most Reverend and Right Honourable Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, Right Reverend Lord Bishops, reverend fathers and venerable servants of our Lord Jesus Christ, your excellencies, highly esteemed and very dear brothers and sisters, Friends! In the name of trice Holy God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, let me offer our traditional greeting: Christ is in our midst!
One hundred years ago from this sacred place a young Serbian hieromonk, taken by awe, stated that this cathedral’s magnificence, surely, must be the pride of England and of all Christendom. “I have seen that it has been built from granite and marble”, he remarked, “that the waves of the hundreds of seas and oceans rinsed them to the shore […] that this temple is accounted for the one of the architectural wonders of the world for a reason”. Those were the words of Nikolaj Velimirović, later bishop of Ohrid and Žiča, recently sainted by the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Speaking in most difficult times, his nation butchered and exiled, the Serb added that he comes from a country were “All the light went from the ground to the sky and the sky is the only place where the light is coming from”. Moreover, these words were uttered on 28 June 1916, on St. Vitus’ Day. On that day the Serbian nation celebrates the memory of the Battle of Kosovo (28 June 1389). In this epic battle Duke Lazar and his people, having taken Holy Communion at the Church of Samodreža, laid their lives in defense of freedom, land and of Christ’s Church. Writing in c. 1393 patriarch Danilo III states that having assembled his army to tell them of the Turkish invasion, the Holy Martyr Duke described the ultimate award (1Cor. 2:9) which awaits those who keep faith: “We have lived a long time for the world; in the end we seek to accept the martyr’s struggle and to live forever in heaven. Let us earn the name of Christian soldiers, martyrs for godliness…”
This is who we were, this is who we are, and this is who we shall be. Namely, a people who give witness to Christ, if need be at pains of the Cross (Phil. 2:8). We trust that this is who you are, as Christians of the great British people. That is, a people who keep faith in their Christ, the Son of God, given for the life of the world (Jn. 6:51).
It is this that prompted the saint-to-be, Nikolaj, to state the following as well, 100 years ago at St Paul’s: “However, my friends, I am coming from a little country in the Balkans, and there is a temple that is bigger, holier, and more beautiful and precious than this one. That temple is located in the Serbian town of Niš and its name is the Skull Tower. That temple is built from the skulls that belong to my people. They have been standing there for five centuries, like a stout dam […], on the Eastern European gate”. Velimirović understood that the Skull Tower (welded of mortar and bone) is a symbol of Serbian faithfulness to Christ, and a sign of service to Europe’s Christian identity. “In other words”, as St. Nikolai concluded, “… while Europe was becoming Europe we know Today, we were its fence, the impenetrable wall, and the wild thorns around the gentle rose”.
This gentle rose, as England is proverbially referred to as well, remains dear to us. For, we too are part of Europe’s mission, beauty and meaning.
Accordingly, we keep unfading memory of hosts of Christians from these Great Isles who have helped us enrich and protect our nation on its historical path, which rises to lead us into our final destiny, the Kingdom of our Lord. In World War I the nurses of Scotland came to Serbia’s aid, risking their lives; the professors and Anglican clerics of Oxford, Cuddston and Dorchester saved a whole generation of Serbian boys, offering shelter and education to Serbia’s spiritual future. This is why Serbian officers dedicated the following script to Lady Katherine M. Harley of the Scottish Women’s Hospital, killed in action in Bitolj (Manastir) in 1917: “On your tomb instead of flowers our gratitude shall blossom”.
In World War II again our nations forged fellowship in blood and witness to “golden freedom and honorable Cross”. In April 1941 the church of the Holy Ascension in Belgrade was struck by Luftwaffe bombs, killing several hundred faithful. Six months earlier Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London was struck by the same dark wing, the High Altar was destroyed. Several hundred thousand Serbs perished through unimaginable suffering in the Konzentrationslager of Jasenovac, simply for being of different faith and national provenance. Hundreds of thousands of British sons and daughters were strewn like poppies over this blooded earth, fighting the same evil. “Better grave than slave!” Serbs exclaimed in Belgrade’s streets in 1941, as they affirmed solidarity with the great allies.
Still, it is not only defense against evil and destruction that has brought us together, historically. Affirmation of the common Good in times of peace has done the same. Timothy J. Byford, wonderful educator of several generations of Serbian children in the 70s and 80s, a keeper of Belgrade’s nightingales, and our beloved citizen for over 50 years; or, more recently, the Bishop of Warwick, John, a Velimirović adept, who came to our aid during the epic floods inundating Serbia in May 2014, working with others to alleviate the misfortunes of the 30,000 displaced: Such are the persons who come to mind as our distinguished British friends, notwithstanding many others who weave the coat of many colours of mutual respect and solidarity (Gen. 37:3).
Presently we need to face the future together, again. We are called in the name of what we believe is best: namely, the promotion of truth, charity and sanctifying life kept in the Church of Christ by the Spirit. However, the world has changed dramatically. It is a world which, despite spectacular progress in many fields, remains tied to sin, a world fallen (Rom. 8:20-22). The acerbic words of St. Justin Popović (who read letters at Oxford under guidance of Fr. Walter H. Frere, commencing in 1916) illustrate one of our paradoxes: “Оur age is one of atomic technology entangled in jungle ethicology”. In a word, we still struggle to implement spiritual discernment and proper ethical orientation in fields of science, technology and political power, which tend to create self-sufficient worlds of their own.
This is why the Serbian Orthodox Church, according to its modest abilities, and in the name of the Triune God, wishes to extend solidarity to the Church of England and Anglican Communion globally, so as to share what we think are the essential ways of moving forward in Christ. Firstly, we shall continue to elevate ascetic humbleness in and of Christ against all manner of excess devoid of grace: hence, in selfless giving we shall find our reward. Secondly, we shall continue to pray for the whole world in Truth: hence, in Christ’s image, words and deeds we shall seek answers to hard questions and face, boldly, the manifold challenges that come our way in what is growingly a “post-Christian” if not “anti-Christian” culture. Thirdly, we shall offer self-sacrificial service to all, regardless of race, social rank, ethnicity or gender: hence, by guidance of the Holy Spirit we shall continue to serve our world, bettering education, providing food and shelter for the hungry and homeless, protecting the marginalized, and nurturing the all-important work of reconciliation.
This path is illuminated by our guiding luminaries, past and present. These are men and women “with a lamp”. Notably, our scientists: England’s Francis Crick and Serbia’s Nikola Tesla, the “inventor of the electrical age”, a priest’s son; our poets and visionaries: John Donne and Petar Petrović Njegoš; our humanitarians: Florence Nightingale and Vladan Djordjević: but preeminently, these are our saints: Augustine and Anselmo of Canterbury or Simon and Sava of Athos and Serbia. For, they are spiritual parents of our Christian identity, and of our future in the Kingdom of God, which is at hand (Μk. 1:15).
It is in the name of this common heritage—wrought in prayer, blood and light—that I plead we remain steadfast in our faith, hope and love for Christ in whom the whole world is called to repentance, transformation, unification and salvation (Col 1:16-20). It is by the same token that I, entrusted by God to keep the Holy Patriarchal See of the Serbian Orthodox Church, also plead we tend to our brother’s and sister’s wounds: to those of our neighbor as much as those of the stranger (Lk 10:33-35). For, by “carrying each other’s burdens […] we will fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). And our greatest wound, I should say, remains located in our spiritual heartland Kosovo and Metohija (which some refer to as the “Kent of Serbia”). Let us, therefore, pray that Christians in Kosovo (as elsewhere) conduct their Liturgies freely, without fear.
This is especially needed, say, in the church of Our Lady of Ljeviš (1306–1309). This church keeps a fresco depicting Plato and is located in the town of Prizren in Kosovo. Despite being on UNESCO’s list of jewels in the crown of world cultural heritage, this church was torched in the anti-Serb pogrom. The famous Ljeviš fresco of the Holy Mother of God, scorched by fire and darkened by smoke’s soot in 2004, nevertheless, still beholds our souls whilst holding infant Jesus in her all-holy arms. The same call for protective remembrance may be issued with regard to martyr monk Chariton of Crna Reka. He was abducted by armed men on 15 June 1999, 13 days before St. Vitus’ Day. Heeding his Bishop’s blessing, he went his way to buy bread for the brothers surrounded in the diocesan residence. He never returned. Chariton’s body was found later, beheaded. His martyred head was never retrieved. Still, we believe it has found rest, embedded spiritually in the Tower of Skulls, of which Bishop Nikolaj spoke a century ago.
Even so, we believe that there is a place in the hollow of God’s hand for both nations living in Kosovo and Metohija. For both Serbs, a people now mostly exiled from their homeland, and for Albanians. As you know well, I represent a nation small in breadth and length, not great in worldly power. Nonetheless, those who are best in our kind try to be great in emulating our saints and Christ. And it was St. Nikolaj Velimirović who stated memorably that Orthodoxy is to be found “beyond East and West”. For being free, loving and discerning in our Lord Jesus Christ means to traverse local borders and seek universal meaning, charity and justice. At the same time, it means to share the wealth thus acquired: or, to remain committed locally in particular challenges, as they come to reflect our general goals and hopes. Therefore, to strive for reconciliation—across hurt, divide and mistrust—is the superlative way to move forward: working for unity with our brothers and sisters of the same Christian faith, as well as working for peace and understanding with people of other religious, ethnical or socio-political denomination, under the condition of good will. In this we request your help, your wisdom and your understanding.
Therefore, I kindly ask all of you to accept this humble address as a token of good will in Christ our Lord. It is a symbol of undivided respect towards your great nation, culture and spiritual heritage. Alongside, it is a reflection on the historical paths we have traversed together, in mutual enrichment, regardless of spells of occasional estrangement.
As we seek to strengthen bonds of friendship in fellowship, taking responsibility for a good future shared by all, I extend our special admiration to His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin. His acute sense of diligent responsiveness to burning issues, his awareness of the complexities of modern existence, his love of prayer and practical theology: the elegant efficiency and calm wisdom with which he holds together such an intricate Body as is the Anglican Communion globally—the care for his Church and for people across the globe, his commitment to Anglican-Orthodox dialogue included, are an inspiration to all. Lastly, please accept our heartfelt gratitude for offering to us this historic opportunity to magnify God’s providence and mercy in this locus sanctus, just as your predecessor Lord Archbishop Randall Davidson did with loving regard to Nikolaj Velimirović, one hundred years ago.
May our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, by the prayers of His most pure Mother and of our holy and God-bearing fathers and of all the Saints, have mercy on us!
St. Paul’s Cathedral, London
On the Feast of Protection of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
14 October 2016