The Lesser Feast Day of Jan Hus
Sometimes when I’m having trouble getting my thoughts together, I’ll look for a quote that speaks to me, a pearl of wisdom from someone who might offer guidance.
It was in such a rut-breaking search that I recalled a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
It is an appropriate quote for today, because today we remember Jan Hus, a man who discovered something for which he was willing to die, and who was very fit to live for Christ.
Hus lived from 1369-1415, and was a priest, theologian, philosopher, and church reformer in what is now the Czech Republic. We celebrate him as a prophetic witness and martyr – as one who shared Christ’s message, and stayed true to Christ, even to the point of death.
As a reformer, Hus predated Luther by a century, and his work greatly influenced the changes that would come in following centuries. It was in his role as a critic and reformer of the Church that Hus ran afoul of ecclesiastical authorities of his day, leading to censure, excommunication, condemnation and finally his martyrdom, by being burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.
It’s certainly worthwhile for us to remember Jan Hus’s death – to honor his steadfastness and courage in professing Christ’s message, and to upholding the sanctity of the Body of Christ, even to the stake. But, to fully appreciate the importance of his legacy, we must consider not only his death, but also his life, and how his story can be related to our life in the Church today.
Hus criticized the Church of his day for the excesses and immorality of the clergy, from the parish priests to the Pope himself. His teachings were greatly influenced by John Wycliffe, c. 1320-1384, who criticized the privileged status of the clergy in English society, and advocated for vernacular translations of the Bible.
Hus’s teaching of Wycliffe’s writing, and his own criticisms of the Church, caused friction with higher authorities. But his criticism of the Church went largely unchecked until late in the Western Schism.
In this schism three different men all claimed ascension to the papacy: Gregory XII in Rome; Benedict XIII in Avignon, France; and later Alexander V, appointed by the Council of Pisa, because apparently adding a third pope to the conflict was going to clear things up.
These three men used the power of the Church, and their various benefactors, to wage war against each other, and against the teachings of each other’s adherents. Hus came out on the short end of this conflict when Alexander V issued a decree in 1409 that all Wycliffe’s teachings be burned, and excommunicating Hus and his followers.
Hus, however, did not stop or alter his preaching. As war continued between the various would-be popes, Hus preached against indulgences sold to finance the conflict, and asserted that no human authority could invoke the name of Christ in violence.
These stances placed him at even greater odds with a Church that was more occupied with the acquisition and division of worldly kingship than with the growth and glory of God’s kingdom. Numerous orders were made for Hus to recant his teachings – to toe the line with the political power of the Church and Pope (whoever that would be).
In response, Hus appealed not to Church, to Pope, or to any kingly benefactor. Instead he appealed only to Christ, and the authority of Scripture. He bypassed the hierarchy and power of the medieval Church.
In opposing the Church, Hus knew what odds he faced, and the likely outcome. He wrote, at the time: “Even if I should stand before the stake which has been prepared for me, I would never accept the recommendation of the theological faculty (to recant).”
He would soon have the chance to prove those words. In fall, 1414 he was summoned to the Council of Constance. The council sought to end the schism, and one of the details that needed to be cleared up was this pesky, Bohemian priest who insisted Christ’s ministers live and work with morality, humility, and love.
Hus again refused to recant his teachings. He implored his accusers to convince him of his wrongdoing – using Scripture. If they could convince him of his wrongdoing with the Word of God, then he would recant. But, they relied instead on the power of this world, and condemned him to death.
Accounts from his execution say that shortly before he was chained to the stake, Hus fell to his knees, and with his hands raised to heaven, and prayed. He did not pray to be delivered from the stake. He did not pray for God to strike down his persecutors. Instead, Hus prayed for God to forgive his persecutors. He prayed for God to forgive those who were about to burn him alive.
There are plenty of great lessons and messages to take away from Hus’s life and death. The conviction of his morals, his unwavering walk with Christ, his appeal to the guidance of God rather than worldly power, and his courage in facing bodily death – these all are great messages on which to reflect.
But, it is perhaps too easy for us to view Hus in an “us versus them” dichotomy. We, the reformed, in the episcopal order of the Anglican Communion, may shake our heads at the cruel tyranny, the excesses and greed of the Church that burned Jan Hus. Thank God “we” are not “they.”
Or, are we?
Hus lived and was executed a century before Luther’s 95 Theses, and even longer before King Henry VIII instituted his own royal version of Divorce Court, putting in motion the wheels that would carve out the Church of England in 1534.
In this light, the history of Hus is our history – on both sides of the story. The “us” that is a separate entity from the “they” of the medieval Roman Catholic Church did not yet exist, so this history is a history of our church. The legacy of Hus’s courage and steadfastness in faith is ours to claim – and we should claim it. But, the history of persecuting, condemning and burning him and many, many others – that’s also our history, and if we are to learn from our past, we must claim it as well.
Thankfully, much has changed since 1415. We, and our brethren in the Protestant denominations, have found our own path. And, the Roman Catholic Church has long-since embraced the temporal reforms Hus sought, and today bears little resemblance in worldly affairs to the Church that sent him to the stake. Across the board, it’s fairly safe today to expect Christian churches, regardless of denomination, won’t be setting anyone on fire.
But, can the same be said for the affairs of our hearts? The Church long ago stopped burning people at the stake, thanks be to God. But, have we stopped burning them in our hearts? Christ tells us in Matthew 5:22 that one is as damning as the other: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
The inner workings of our hearts, the content of our thoughts and our words – these all bear as much witness to our walk with – or without – Christ, as the literal burning of Jan Hus.
I would encourage all of us, as Christians, to ask ourselves these questions: In what ways do our words and our thoughts burn our neighbor? Do we bear love, or judgement, for those with differences of opinion, liturgy, and theology? Do we pray for those who oppose us, as Jan Hus did at the very foot of his stake? Or, do we burn them with our words?
Just as our words, in Spirit, can ignite flames of passion for Christ, so too can words of hatred and pride ignite the flames of judgment. We have, every day, to choose which side of Jan Hus’s story we will take. We can live in humility, love, and courage, and ignite the fire of the Holy Spirit in ourselves and in each other. Or, we can instead light the fires of pride, greed and fear, and blindly chain ourselves to a stake of our own making.
In recalling our opening words from Martin Luther King, Jr., we have to find something worth dying for – we must find Christ in the Holy Spirit – if we are to be fit to live. We must be willing to die to ourselves, to surrender our judgement and our pride, if we are to walk to our fullest potential in Christ.
In making that choice, to surrender fully to God, we may rely on Hus’s final words at the stake: “Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on us!” Amen.
Note: This lay sermon was first presented at Noonday Prayers, July 5 2017, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid OK, for the Lesser Feast Day of Jan Hus, officially observed on July 6.