Saints Cyril and Methodius are known as the "teachers of the Slavs". They were 9th century missionaries who brought the gospel to the Slavic peoples (who are the ancestor's of today's Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Russians, etc). Saint Cyril in particular is known as the inventor of the Cyrilic alphabet, which is still in use today in many Slavic countries (and even some Central Asian ones like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan). Saints Cyril and Methodius translated the Bible and Christian liturgy to the Slavic language using Cyril's alphabet, and are celebrated for upholding the freedom of people to worship in their mother tongue. They are among the most celebrated saints in Eastern Europe, and their feast day is a public holiday in several Slavic nations today.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saints Cyril and Methodius, Equals to the Apostles and Teachers of the Slavs
We have heard the phrase “equal-to-the apostles” af few times before. The Orthodox church gives this term typically to saints who bring the Christian faith to a new people group, as Cyril and Methodius did for the slavs. The cyrlic alphabet that Cyril invented is still used in several countries today, mostly in Eastern Europe, but also in places in Central Asia like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan
Let us read an account of their life and ministry from the website of the OCA.
Saints Cyril and Methodius, Equals of the Apostles, and Enlighteners of the Slavs came from an illustrious and pious family living in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Saint Methodius was the oldest of seven brothers, Saint Constantine [Cyril was his monastic name] was the youngest. At first Saint Methodius was in the military and was governor in one of the Slavic principalities dependent on the Byzantine Empire, probably Bulgaria, which made it possible for him to learn the Slavic language. After living there for about ten years, Saint Methodius later received monastic tonsure at one of the monasteries on Mount Olympus (Asia Minor).
Saint Constantine distinguished himself by his great aptitude, and he studied with the emperor Michael under the finest teachers in Constantinople, including Saint Photius, the future Patriarch of Constantinople (February 6).
Saint Constantine studied all the sciences of his time, and also knew several languages. He also studied the works of Saint Gregory the Theologian. Because of his keen mind and penetrating intellect, Saint Constantine was called “Philosopher” (wise). Upon the completion of his education, Saint Constantine was ordained to the holy priesthood and was appointed curator of the patriarchal library at the church of Hagia Sophia. He soon left the capital and went secretly to a monastery.
Discovered there, he returned to Constantinople, where he was appointed as instructor in philosophy. The young Constantine’s wisdom and faith were so great that he won a debate with Ananias, the leader of the heretical iconclasts. After this victory Constantine was sent by the emperor to discuss the Holy Trinity with the Saracens, and again he gained the victory. When he returned, Saint Constantine went to his brother Saint Methodius on Olympus, spending his time in unceasing prayer and reading the works of the holy Fathers.
The emperor soon summoned both of the holy brothers from the monastery and sent them to preach the Gospel to the Khazars. Along the way they stayed in the city of Korsun, making preparations for their missionary activity. There the holy brothers miraculously discovered the relics of the hieromartyr Clement, Pope of Rome (November 25).
There in Korsun Saint Constantine found a Gospel and Psalter written in Russian letters [i.e. Slavonic], and a man speaking the Slavic tongue, and he learned from this man how to read and speak this language. After this, the holy brothers went to the Khazars, where they won a debate with Jews and Moslems by preaching the Gospel. On the way home, the brothers again visited Korsun and, taking up the relics of Saint Clement, they returned to Constantinople. Saint Constantine remained in the capital, but Saint Methodius was made igumen of the small Polychronion monastery near Mount Olympus, where he lived a life of asceticism as before.
Soon messengers came to the emperor from the Moravian prince Rostislav, who was under pressure from German bishops, with a request to send teachers to Moravia who would be able to preach in the Slavic tongue. The emperor summoned Saint Constantine and said to him, “You must go there, but it would be better if no one knows about this.”
Saint Constantine prepared for the new task with fasting and prayer. With the help of his brother Saint Methodius and the disciples Gorazd, Clement, Savva, Naum and Angelyar, he devised a Slavonic alphabet and translated the books which were necessary for the celebration of the divine services: the Gospel, Epistles, Psalter, and collected services, into the Slavic tongue. This occurred in the year 863.
After completing the translation, the holy brothers went to Moravia, where they were received with great honor, and they began to teach the services in the Slavic language. This aroused the malice of the German bishops, who celebrated divine services in the Moravian churches in Latin. They rose up against the holy brothers, convinced that divine services must be done in one of three languages: Hebrew, Greek or Latin.
Saint Constantine said, “You only recognize three languages in which God may be glorified. But David sang, ‘Praise the Lord, all nations, praise the Lord all peoples (Ps 116/117:1).’ And the Gospel of Saint Matthew (28:18) says, ‘Go and teach all nations....’” The German bishops were humiliated, but they became bitter and complained to Rome.
The holy brothers were summoned to Rome for a decision on this matter. Taking with them the relics of Saint Clement, Saints Constantine and Methodius set off to Rome. Knowing that the holy brothers were bringing these relics with them, Pope Adrian met them along the way with his clergy. The holy brothers were greeted with honor, the Pope gave permission to have divine services in the Slavonic language, and he ordered the books translated by the brothers to be placed in the Latin churches, and to serve the Liturgy in the Slavonic language.
At Rome Saint Constantine fell ill, and the Lord revealed to him his approaching death. He was tonsured into the monastic schema with the name of Cyril. On February 14, 869, fifty days after receiving the schema, Saint Cyril died at the age of forty-two.
When Cyril passed, Methdiys took up their ministry alone. Despite many challenges, he continued his evangelistic work. Let us continue with this account of Methodius’ ministry after his brother’s death, in the website of the National Shrine in Washington DC:
Cyril passed away on February 14, 869, and was buried in the Basilica of St. Clement. Following his death, Methodius returned to Moravia, where he served as a teacher to Prince Svatopluk. However, when the young prince neglected his duties despite repeated warnings, Methodius excommunicated him.
The move incited Svatopluk’s ire, and he cast Methodius into exile, but the exclusion didn’t last long; after a time, Methodius was recalled and Svatopluk came to see his error, dedicating himself to a fresh life. Methodius continued to spread the Gospel across the continent, to the Liburnians, Serbians, Pannonians, Bulgarians, Dalmatians, and others.
Once again, Methodius faced accusations over use of the vernacular in the liturgy, and defended himself in Rome before Pope John VIII and a group of bishops and clergy in 880. Though he succeeded in convincing them of his innocence, the pope had to write many letters testifying to his good character before he was free to pursue his ministry again. He travelled to Bohemia, where he led Prince Boriwoj and his wife to Christ, and continued across Europe, spreading the Gospel and establishing episcopal Sees before he passed away in 884.
We have Cyril and Methodius to thank for the idea that a people should be able to worship and have access to scriptures in their own language, rather than just in Latin, Greek or Hebrew. But echoes of this conflict between Cyril and methodius with the German bishops would reverberate throughout church history.
In the West, the use of Latin was enforced for a long time over the vernacular. the one of the consequences of the protestant reformation was adoption of the vernacular languages in worship and scripture in Large parts of Europe, with notable figures like John Wycliffe involved with the first English translations. And of course after Vatican II it is now commonplace for Roman Catholics to read scripture and attend mass in their own language. Though there still exist Catholics who prefer or insist on Latin, and this causes conflicts and even schism in some Catholic countries.
In the Eastern Orthodox church, services in the local vernacular are long established. There are disagreements about language here and there, for instance in the United States, where older immigrants sometimes insist on using the language of the home country, while converts and the younger generation prefer English. In current times, the Church Slavonic of Cyril and Methodius’s time is no longer understood in Slavic countries, and there have been discussions here and there about have divine liturgy in Russian, say rather than Church Slavonic, but this is still rather rare.
I especially appreciate how the accounts of Saints Cyril and Methodius document the many struggles they had to endure in their ministry. For some missionaries, St Patrick for instance, it seems they achieve huge successes in whatever they do – which is encouraging in a different way. But Cyril and Methodius had to struggle against bad fortune and a lot of powerful opposition. But their work eventually succeeded by God’s grace, and with great patience on their parts. I find stories like theirs especially meaningful when God calls us to do something, and it at least initially doesn’t work out well.
This theme is expounded well by the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Sotirios of Pisidia
Wonderful is the missionary work of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who are commemorated together on May 11th. Their mission was spread over a vast area of central Europe, which consists of what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Ukraine. Their reach even extended to parts of Austria, Hungary and into Russia. Whole nations abandoned paganism and superstition, in favor of Christian civilization. They worked as equals, determined to plant the Christian faith as Apostles to the Slavic peoples.
The saints were brothers, born in Thessaloniki to an aristocratic family. Cyril was born in 827 AD, with his older brother Methodius born in 815 AD. They attended the most renowned schools in Constantinople, where they excelled. Constantine (St. Cyril’s name before becoming a monk) earned the name of “philosopher” for his intellect. He spoke eight languages, including Slavic, which is why St. Photios appointed him Director of the Center for Slavic Studies, which he had founded in Constantinople. His brother Methodius had been appointed Governor of Slavonia (a province in the Balkans with a Slavic population), so he too was able to learn their language. Yearning for the solitary life, he resigned his position and became a monk in a Monastery of Olympus, in Bithynia. Through unceasing prayer, study, and asceticism, St. Methodius would be equipped for the great work that God would call him to later.
It was the Ecumenical Patriarch St. Photios who fully appreciated St. Cyril’s qualifications, assigning him to various ecclesiastical missions, which he successfully completed. In one of these, he was sent to Chersonas, where he baptized the first 200 Slavs, among them members of the upper class. This created the conditions for the continued growth of the Church there, which after a century spread throughout Russia. While in Chersonas, St. Cyril realized that the greatest obstacle to his missionary work was the lack of writing, due to the Slavs having no alphabet. This is why, when the Patriarch commissioned him to go to Moravia with his brother St. Methodius to preach the Gospel, he created the Slavonic alphabet. It was this alphabet which he then used to translate and record the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, the basic Holy Services and the Divine Liturgy. Upon arriving in Moravia with his brother and associates in 863, they were happy to offer the Holy Gospel translated into Slavonic as a gift to the Ruler of Moravia. He gladly received this gift, as his request to Emperor Michael III was now fulfilled.
The two missionary brothers, who have been described as Isapostles (Equals to the Apostles), then began work on the establishment of a school in which they taught the Slavic alphabet and grammar, using the Bible as the basic text. They trained their Slavic associates, ordaining the most suitable to the priesthood, and expanded the Church throughout the territory. Naturally, this was not without difficulty due to a variety of factors, particularly from the successor to the Moldavan ruler Rotislav. Sts. Cyril and Methodius went to Rome in 869, where they were welcomed by the Pope. It was during this visit that St. Cyril reposed, and was buried there. St. Methodius, now Archbishop of Sirmium, continued his work and ordained a multitude of Slovenians, Croats, and Serbs to spread the Gospel in other countries where the Slavic peoples were established. Enduring persecution and imprisonment for two years, he died in 885.
It is impossible within the limits of a single sermon to describe all of the great pioneering work accomplished by these holy brothers. What can be said is that the apostolic and cultural work of Sts. Cyril and Methodius was of immeasurable benefit for the people they ministered to.
When we consider all that they did, we see how the Saints willingly took on the holy work entrusted to them by God through His Church. They were totally committed, despite the difficulties, persecutions and reactions they received from others. After his imprisonment and the death of his brother, St. Methodius did not even consider leaving and going back to his Monastery. They were determined to follow God’s exhortation to the Church of Smyrna: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).
This is a great lesson for all of us. Whatever mission God has given us in our lives, we must persevere to the end, no matter what obstacles or temptations we may face. We cannot give up when we encounter the first challenge. A student has to complete their studies. Spouses should be loyal, and devoted to each other their whole lives. Whether the work is for the Church, a public work, or something to do with our profession, we are bound to complete it. But most of all, our spiritual training as Christians, a labor that continues even if we are not able to see the amazing results we may want. We do this, so that we can also say to God: “Father … I have finished the work which You have given me to do” (John 17:4). With this we can be at peace, knowing in our hearts that we have struggled and overcome all things, continuing our journey to Christ to the very end.
Cyril and Methodius are celebrated on many different days in different parts of the world. In the west, the brothers are typically celebrated on Feb 14, and in the East they are typically celebrated on May 11. For Eastern Orthodox Feb 14 is a minor feast day just for St Cyril, since this is the anniversry of his repose. In the Czechia and Slovakia Saints Cyril and Methodiyus are instead celebrated in 5 July. Their feast day is a public holiday in several slavic countries, including Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Czechia and Slocakia
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Divinely-wise Cyril and Methodius, / equals-to-the-apostles and teachers of the Slavs, / entreat the Master of all / to strengthen all nations in Orthodoxy and unity of mind, / to grant peace to the world and to save our souls.
Kontakion — Tone 3
Let us honor the sacred pair, who translated divine scripture / pouring forth a fountain of divine knowledge from which we still draw today. / Now as you stand before the throne of the Most-high / we call you blessed, Cyril and Methodius, / as you fervently pray for our souls.