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The Language of Liturgy–Cyril and Methodius

The Language of Liturgy–Cyril and Methodius


Daily Office Readings for the feast of Cyril and Methodius, February 14, 2020:


Psalm 96:1-7
Ephesians 3:1-7
Mark 16:15-20 


In today’s Gospel, we are hearing Jesus talk about signs.  Cyril and Methodius aren’t known for fantastic miracles or adventurous tales of fleeing from persecution–but one might say they did create the letters for the “signs!”  Although they always seem to take a back seat to Valentine on February 14, we might remember that without language, there is no language of love!


The two brothers were born in Thessalonika in the early 800’s (Methodius in 815, Cyril in 826), with the birth names of Constantine and Michael.  Michael became Methodius sometime in adulthood when he became a monk; Constantine only became Cyril fifty days before his death when he too, became a monastic at age 43.  They were both fluent in the Slavic language; although accounts vary, it’s very possible they were of Slavic heritage even though they hailed from Greece.


Their understanding of the Slavic language was exactly what the Byzantine emperor, Michael III, and Constantinople’s patriarch, Photius, needed to evangelize and build a relationship in Slavic  territory, so the two brothers were sent as missionaries. They ran into a hurdle almost immediately. Almost no one was fluent in Latin, and Greek was…well…all Greek to them. If the Slavs were to understand the Good News in Christ, it would have to be in Slavonic…so Cyril set about creating an alphabet with Methodius’ help, so the liturgy and the Bible could be translated into the vernacular of the people.  His alphabet, the Glagolitic alphabet, would evolve into what we now know as the Cyrillic alphabet. (Yes, he’s *THAT* Cyril!)


Because of their fluency in the native language, evangelism flourished in the region.  It was only a matter of time, however, before their methodology reached the ears of the neighboring Carolingian Empire, who insisted on uniformity in worship…i.e. In Latin.  The brothers decided to take the matter to Rome, and solicited an invite from Pope Nicholas I. By the time they had arrived, though, Nicholas had died and Adrian II had become Pope.  No matter. He praised Cyril and Methodius on their work and authorized permission for them to preach, teach, and celebrate in Slavonic. That said, after their deaths (Cyril in 869 and Methodius in 885), there was no one left to defend their position.


Cyril’s death gave the neighbors a reason to push the language agenda again.  In 870 the Frankish king Louis and his bishops had Methodius deposed and imprisoned for two years.  Pope John VIII had him released but told him not to use the Slavonic liturgy; in 878 Methodius was charged with heresy and using Slavonic, and summoned back to Rome.  After some reflection, Pope John reversed his decision and allowed him to continue worshiping in Slavonic. However, within 20 years of Methodius’ death, the churches in the region were ordered to worship in Latin–a practice that continued in the Roman Catholic church until the Vatican II reforms evolved in the late 20th century.


For Anglicans, though, the story of Cyril and Methodius gives us a lens through which to review our own revisions to liturgy through the Book of Common Prayer, mixed with a dash of humility–we weren’t the first to think worshiping in the common vernacular was a good idea.  Like Cyril and Methodius, our revisions were also met with resistance at first. Even our change from the Elizabethan English in our 1928 BCP to the more familiar language in the 1979 BCP was met with resistance by good Episcopalians who were uncomfortable with the tone of familiarity using “you” instead of “thou” when speaking to God.  Forty years later, the vast majority of us don’t give it a second thought–or no thought at all.


How does the language you use for God shape how you envision God?  How do we speak to God when language fails us?


Image: Statue of Cyril and Methodius, Sofia, Bulgaria, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as the Interim Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, MO. 


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