A Message from Father Nick 38
Kazan Cathedral (©LovePik)
A glimpse of heaven on earth
All Christian peoples have their story of conversion, and the coming of faith to Russia tells us much about Eastern Orthodoxy. In 987, before the final schism between East and West, Vladimir Prince of Kiev sent out a number of ambassadors on an important mission. Vladimir had extended the borders of Russia and brought security to his people. Now he needed a form of religion that would truly unite them.
One embassy went to the Muslims of Bulgaria, but their way of faith was found to be unpromising. It seemed rather too grim, and a ban on alcohol and pork was never going to go down well with Russians.
The neighbouring people of Khazariah had chosen to become Jewish, but Judaism too was judged inappropriate by Vladimir, as the God of the Jews had not even protected his own temple.
As for Roman Catholicism – it had already been rejected by Vladimir’s ancestors.
Another embassy was sent to Byzantium, and this group came back with a glowing report. The ambassadors had been taken to solemn worship in the church of Hagia Sophia and found themselves overwhelmed by the experience. Describing it, they said,
“…We were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or earth, and we do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people, and their service is better than any other country. We cannot forget that beauty, since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards. So we cannot remain any more in [paganism].”
Their sense that liturgy brings a glimpse of heaven on earth has become a distinguishing feature of Orthodoxy and has come to be closely identified with the spirituality of “Holy Russia”.
Of course, the age of Byzantium eventually passed. In 1453, Constantinople (“New Rome”) fell to the Turks, and the active leadership of Orthodoxy moved to Moscow. Now Russia took on its own significant role. In 1523/1524, a monk called Philotheus wrote to the Grand Duke of Moscow, urging him to be strong against heresies. Reminding him of his responsibilities, Philotheus said,
“All the Christian kingdoms have come to an end and have converged in the single kingdom of our sovereign. Two Romes fell, a third stands, and there will not be a fourth one.”
Rome – Constantinople – Moscow… Whatever we make of his reading of history, his sense of inheritance is powerful, and so is his summons to responsibility. We too have received our faith from others and we are reminded that we too must share our faith with others in return.