Genesis 6:5-8; Mark 8:14-21
As I was just beginning my teaching career, a professor I once worked for gave me some very good advice. I asked her how I could tell if what I was trying to teach was actually sinking in. She replied, “Here’s my rule: If you see a student nodding her head up and down more than three times while you’re lecturing, she has absolutely no idea what you just said.”
Mark does not depict the disciples nodding their heads but it’s pretty clear to their Teacher that they too had no idea at all what he had just said. After the disciples discovered that they had forgotten bread, Jesus made a spiritual point about leaven that went so far over their heads that, to paraphrase the ancient saying, he may as well have been speaking Greek.
Greek would have posed no problem to the saints we remember today. These two brothers, Michael and Constantine, were born in northern Greece in the early 800’s and grew up bilingual, speaking Greek and Slavonic. Although both were well educated and could have attained great success in worldly terms, they were more interested in heavenly rewards. Michael left government service to profess vows, taking the name Methodius, while Constantine left academics, was ordained to the Diaconate, and became a renowned defender of the faith.
At this time, a prince from what is now the Czech Republic asked the emperor to send missionaries who his people could understand. Constantine and Methodius were sent and they prospered. Not only did they translate the liturgy and the Bible into Slavonic, they invented a written alphabet to do it. Known as the Cyrillic alphabet, it is used in languages such as Russian to this day.
Sadly, success in ministry sometimes breeds not praise but hostility; so it was for Constantine and Methodius. While the Slavic people took to the faith and loved their liturgy, missionaries from the West complained that they should be using Latin since that was the language of Rome. Pressured to conform, the brothers resisted and were forced to travel to Rome to explain themselves to the Holy Father, Adrian II. Impressed with their arguments and their success, the Pope granted an exemption, authorizing them to continue using Slavonic.
While still in Rome, Constantine entered the monastery and took the name Cyril. He never returned to the East, dying in Rome just a few months later. His older brother did return, however, and trouble followed him. Without the Pope’s knowledge or consent, the local bishop continued to harass him for not using Latin. He was even horsewhipped and thrown in prison for his refusal. The pope discovered this and had him released, but the precedent had been sent; Methodius was systematically harassed for the rest of his life. His spirit undaunted but his body broken, he died April 6, 885.
Of the many lessons that the lives and ministry of Cyril and Methodius teach us, perhaps the greatest is that the Holy Spirit transcends human barriers by speaking the language of Divine love; His is the tongue of fire that seeks nothing but to speak to every heart and kindle in it the fire of that same love. By using their God-given gifts to foster true understanding of the faith among people despite the cost to themselves, Cyril and Methodius showed that barriers such as human language are nothing to our God, in Whose eyes we are deeply and eternally loved, not for who or what we are, but that we are at all.
Further, as the reading from Genesis implies, we grieve the heart of God not only when we ourselves remain cold to the Divine flame but when we try to extinguish that flame in others. Like the disciples in the boat, the missionaries who harassed Cyril and Methodius heard but did not understand. Perhaps it was envy or jealousy of the brothers’ ingenuity or success that hardened their hearts. Regardless, we are called to look inside ourselves and ask if we too are envious or jealous of the gifts God gave others. It is true that other people have gifts that we do not, but it is equally true that we possess gifts that they do not. To each has been given the same Spirit; from each is expected the fruits of that gift.
Therefore, let us resolve to be fluent in the language of love: Pray and thank God for the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to ourselves and to all people of good will; work to develop those gifts that God’s will be done on Earth; rejoice in the success of these gifts and above all, remember that success in ministry means the salvation of souls, each infinitely loved by God, Who is Love itself.
Saints Cyril and Methodius, pray for us.