Jan Hus the Eastern Christian: Greek Missionaries and Common Language

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian studying theology, especially having spent the majority of my education in Protestant institutions, colleagues and classmates routinely ask questions about my community off a short list of well-known sources about sistren and brethren to the East. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is, of course, high on this list. Particularly when my now husband was being baptized in the Orthodox Church, hilarious friends would ask about the ritual of using kiddy pools as adult baptisteries, how one blesses such items, and whether or not my now husband would be lacquered in a thick coat of olive oil for his chrismation. One scene from this documentary particularly informs my daily life — the lovely vignette where the father asks for a word, any word, “and I tell you how this is Greek word.” This pride for tradition extends far past a cultural commitment to Hellenism and into the arena of theology such that if I were to put it crassly many Orthodox scholars, myself included, enjoy challenges like “tell me any theological concept and I tell you how this is Orthodox concept,” said with the same obligatory Russo-Greek-Arab accent.

Accordingly, whenever I read texts from the Reformation I cannot help but see connections to the early Church and how the thirst for direct access to the liturgy, sacraments (particularly Eucharist), and the renewed commitment to lay ministries reflect the same motivations for movements in the Eastern Orthodox faith tradition. Jan Hus and the Bohemian reformations highlight these themes and connections directly, having taken much of their inspiration and nourishment from the Greek and Slavic cultural and religious influences in the area. Prague has been home to a Slavonic Benedictine monastery, called Emmaus, since 1347 where the traditions of East and West fuse, reflecting the cultural mash-up that results in Eastern Catholic and Western Orthodox rites.

The World Council of Churches website introduces the Hussite Church as “[occupying] the middle ground between the essence of the Catholic Church (liturgy and the seven sacraments) and the principles of the Protestant churches (teaching and order),” as if the sacraments and liturgy are essentially Roman Catholic and wherever they are found marks a Roman religious territory. While the area in Prague where the Hussite pre-reformation occurred was under papal jurisdiction, it was a far less traditionally Roman Catholic area than this flattened description would indicate. The modern Hussite Church describes itself as “[professing] the tradition of the Early Church, that of Cyril and Methodius and of the Reformation,” Cyril and Methodius being the Orthodox saints remembered as “the missionaries to the Slavs.”

So crucial to the Moravian and Bohemian foundational myths, these saints are portrayed in Hugh LeCaine Agnew’s Origins of the Czech National Renascence as advocates for Czech culture, even speaking before papal representatives in Rome on behalf of those using the Czech language for religious services. Interestingly, Cyril and Methodius were only included in Roman Catholic commemoration in 1880 when Pope Leo included them in the ecclesiastical calendar. Pope John Paul II additionally commemorated them as patrons of Europe in 1980. The late recognition of these missionary saints is perhaps due in part to their significance in Bohemia and Moravia as figures from a non-papal Christianity. Cyril and Methodius come to represent a religious tradition belonging to the common people, essentially linking Czech Christianity to the ancients in a way that theologically circumvents the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

As a perhaps obvious aside, one of the concerns when weighing through these secondary sources is, as much as possible, siphoning off the anti-Catholic bias. The authors here are largely a part of the continued movements rippling from Hus and Wyclif, but inadvertently many interpret Eastern traditions and influences through a one-sided, obtuse lens. Any structure equals a papal sort of hierarchy for these Reformed scholars, and the language used to translate Czech documents reflect a unilateral Latin stroke when discussing many unfamiliar, more Eastern topics such as the use of Slavonic in liturgy. For example, Enrico Molinar, despite his willingness to portray Hus as Eastern Orthodox in his attitude toward images, characterizes the use of Slavonic as “a fossilized residue of the old Proto-Bulgarian rite, introduced in the region by the Apostles to the Slavs, Sts Cyril and Methodius of the ninth century” and “not a language of the people” in his efforts to highlight the Hussite reformation as a “radical break” with the Latin past (Liturgical Reforms, 298).

The poor representation of Slavonic religious traditions was a concern for Jan Hus’ biographer Matthew Spinka, motivating him to include Jan Hus and the Czechoslovakian reforms alongside Eastern Orthodox theological contributions in an article for The Slavonic Review in 1926. He attempts to correct the lacuna in church historians’ representation of Christianity, calling the oversight provincialism, by highlighting Slavonic/Slavic religious traditions’ far-reaching impact. Apparently, thirty years later Molinar still maintains this provincial and West-centric vision of Christianity when he is unable to imagine liturgical languages as functioning in any way other than to distance the worshipers from the worship. Far from intentionally obscuring access to the Mass from the people, Slavonic was the comprehensible root of most Slavic languages and understood across dialects.

The papal allowance of Slavonic as a liturgical language in Prague actually presents a curious climate change wherein a common language, albeit a root for other common languages, gained sacred position alongside Latin. Advocating for Czech in liturgy, then, is only a slight step down from an already significantly lowered religious platform rather than a full jump down from the realm of the Roman priest to the level of the people. Including the average person in worship was nothing new to Eastern Christians - after all, for Eastern Orthodox Christians, the liturgy as defined outside or beyond the grasp of the laity would be unimaginable. How can one have a leiturgia, the work of the people, without the laos? With this in mind, Hus attempts to outline the proper place of the priest and give the Czech Christians a vision of the Church wherein the common worshipers are the heartbeat. To accomplish this Hus appeals to the writings of St. John Chrysostom, the theologian responsible for the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.

It is well known that Jan Hus cites St. Augustine on the regular, almost as frequently as he does the Scriptures, but less researched and analyzed is his digestion of St. John Chrysostom.

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