It is the 26th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1396.
Russia is massive. In fact, it’s the largest country in the world by area. It is both European and Asian. IT was one of the anti-colonial powers, along with the United States, that survived World War II and became, ironically, a colonial power itself.
And I should confess that the first ten years of my life coincided with the last decade of the Cold War. Soviets, as they were then called, were akin to the Boston Red Sox or the San Francisco 49ers. We didn’t think of them much, but when we did… ooh boy. It was not nice.
Of course, the American obsession with “Godless communists” on the other side of the globe was understandable amongst Christians in America. The Bolshevik revolution was officially atheist, and the history of the USSR is one of oppression for people of faith. Ironically the story of Russia from the Middle Ages to the early 1900s was of being a bulwark for the Christian Orthodox tradition.
So let’s break down— very briefly the history of Russia.
We know that Vikings who called themselves the “Rus” settled near Novgorod in the 9th century (Novgorod is northwest of Moscow). But they soon moved to Kyiv in modern-day Ukraine. From Kyiv, they could take the Dneiper river to the Black Sea to meet up with Greeks in Constantinople. This led to Vladimir the Great adopting the Orthodox faith in 988.
Long story short: the Mongols sweep through Russia on their way to take Europe and set up the Russian princes as vassals. The Golden Horde is the Mongol administrative state to the southeast of Russia that collected tribute from the various Russian duchies.
Even longer story short: Moscow would become the administrative center and eventually the Grand Duchy. By the 14th century, the Mongol influence was minimal, and the Russians would undergo a kind of Renaissance in culture and religion with the help of the Byzantines. Russians built monasteries, churches, and seminaries. A Russian Orthodox Church, while officially dating back to 988, was now coming into its own.
And this is where we meet St. Stephan of Perm, a man celebrated today, especially in Orthodox churches. Stephan was half Russian and half Komi. The Komi people trace their history back to the mysterious Permian people. These were a Finno-Ugric division of the Uralic family. They lived in the frigid temperatures of Northern Russia near the White Sea, just to the east of modern Finland. It was a strategic area to explore, and like many budding empires, missionaries would often be at the tip of the spear.
In 1366 Stephen went to the monastery at Rostov and spent 13 years there. In 1379 he journeyed into the freezing northern temperatures and began work as a missionary to the Komi people.
Stephan learned about cultural sensitivity the hard way. He is said to have cut down an ancestral tree that the Komi people had worshipped. While he was not run out of the village, he was determined to take a softer approach to introduce the Komi to Christianity. He noticed that the Komi did not have a written alphabet. Rather than make them learn Greek to hear the Gospel, Stephan developed a written alphabet based on their language. He then translated large portions of the Bible and the Orthodox liturgy into this language. He would bring the Gospel to the Komi and be named the first Bishop of Perm. He becomes known as St. Stephan of the Perm and today is considered a St. Patrick type figure for the Komi people.
It should also be noted that the conversion of the Komi was part of a more extensive expansion program that would eventually take the Kingdom of the Rus from Finland, over the Ural Mountains, and to the Pacific Ocean. As I said, it’s a vast country.
Today we remember one of the Christian saints spreading the faith during the 14th century in Russia. St. Stephan of Perm is said to have died on this, the 26th of April in 1396. Born in 1340, he was 56 years old.
The reading for today comes from Dorothy Sayers— this is her “Fair Shepherd.”
FAIR Shepherd must weep
He has lost His sheep
And cannot tell where to find them;
Far from their home
They wander alone
And never will look behind them.
He lay by night
In His chamber bright
And dreamed He saw them dying,
And when He awoke
His heart it was broke,
For He heard them still a-crying.
Then up He took
His staff and crook,
Determined for to find them;
He found them indeed
But they gave Him no heed
And cast His words behind them.
He was haled away
On a Good Friday
To Calvary Hill hard by,
Mocked and denied,
Struck through the side
And hung on a Tree to die.
Through death and hell
He searched as well,
And still in the world doth roam;
He hath done what He could,
As a fair Shepherd should,
To bring His lost sheep home.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 26th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, who says “Kee-ev” as it is the proper English exonym. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who says “Keev” as he doesn’t think the city needs an exonym. You can catch us here every day and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.