Today is Good Friday for most of Christianity. Tonight is the second night of Jewish Passover, and it is the weekend of Orthodox Palm Sunday. For all Christian groups it is a holy time, a time for reflection, a time for the hope of renewal and for the forgiveness of our sins.
Jewish Passover marks the time in the ancient history of the Jewish people dating back thousands of years when the Jews marked their doors with the blood of the lamb before the Angel of Death passed over all of Egypt. The first born of every Egyptian household died that night and then the Jewish people were freed.
For Christians Good Friday is one of the holiest of days in the calendar. After His arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to celebrate the Jewish Passover, Jesus Christ met with His disciples in the upper room where on Thursday night He ate the Last Supper. Later He was betrayed by one of them and was taken by the Roman soldiers, beaten, mocked and abused. An innocent man, He was nailed to the Cross on Calvary, the place of the skull, to die. The injustice of this action by the ruling authorities transcends the centuries right into our own time. Christ's dying words were: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Then He released His spirit. The death of Christ on Good Friday was mankind' s Golgotha. Darkness descended on the world. But three days later His Resurrection from the dead offered new hope to mankind for life eternal.
Canada is a land of immigrants. Regardless of how long we have lived here - my own family has been here now for four generations- we all came from somewhere over there, we are connected to ancestors somewhere over there. Only our Native People have their true roots here. And with that connection there is an eternal emotional bond to the faith of our fathers. Most of us have our religious roots over there, across the ocean.
America was established when emigres from Ireland fled religious persecution in that country, over there. The English are emotionally connected to Canterbury and Westminster, over there. The Italians, French, Spanish, Poles are connected to the Vatican in Rome, Italy, over there across the ocean. The Arabs, Pakistanis, and Iraqis are connected to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, over there. The Sikhs are connected to the Temple at Amritsar, far away over there. The Jews have their ancient connection to Israel, Jerusalem and the Holy Land, over there across the ocean. And the Serbs, we are connected to Kosovo, our Holy Land, over there in the land of our forefathers.
When we watch the conflict in the Middle East so often we see fervent Jewish believers praying at the Wailing Wall. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the loss of the Tablets with the Commandments of the Lord is a wound which the Jewish people have never forgotten. The terrible events of Good Friday at Calvary are events all Christians will never forget. In addition to the loss at Calvary, we Canadians of Serbian and Orthodox heritage also remember the loss at Kosovo in 1389, an event which is grafted into the Serbian heart and soul. Kosovo is not Orthodoxy, but Serbian Orthodoxy cannot be conceived without it. Like the Wailing Wall for the Jews, Kosovo is the centre of Serbian history and the nucleus of the Serbian psyche.
In 1389 Tsar Lazar, the leader of the Serbian nation, had to choose between the Heavenly Kingdom or the earthly Kingdom. He chose the eternity of the Heavenly Kingdom and prepared his people to fight an invading army, the Ottoman Muslim army. Before the battle Tsar Lazar received Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ shed today on Good Friday for the sake of man's salvation. Knowing the very serious significance of the impending battle, 77,000 of his Serbian soldiers also received Holy Communion before the battle commenced. We wonder if the NATO soldiers received communion before they started shooting at innocent civilians and decimating a country and a people which did them no wrong?
The Kosovo battle ended and all the brave soldiers who fought for the Venerable Cross and Golden Freedom died on the battlefield. It was their Good Friday, their crucifixion. That battlefield became their Cross. Anticipating a Christian victory, a Serbian Orthodox victory, the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France rang loudly, but the early information they had received was wrong.
The sacrifice of the Serbian nation made Kosovo a sacred place, the Serbian Wailing Wall. In 1912 Czech statesman Thomas Masaryk noted how the Serbian soldiers who arrived at Kosovo wept, automatically removed their caps, fell to their knees and kissed the sacred ground where the destiny of our fathers was written.
The Scots glory in Culloden, the French glorify Joan of Orleans, but Kosovo represents the defeat of an entire nation, the beginning of five agonizing centuries on the Cross, and a turning point in European history. However, throughout those five centuries of darkness the Serbs continued to look toward the bright light of Easter, toward the hope of a national Resurrection.
With every war we always see the obvious physical destruction, we see the pain of human suffering. But do we see the cultural destruction? The songs that will never be written, the books that will never be read, the art works which will never be painted. War is also the death of culture. Western Europe takes immense pride, and rightly so, in the preservation of their majestic edifices, their marvelous art works, their places of historic interest dating back to the early middle ages. The glorious evidence of the Serbian golden age of medieval times was completely erased and lost from
memory because of that fateful day at Kosovo. The only evidence remained in the Kosovo cycle of songs sung by generations of bards and in our Serbian Orthodox Churches and Monasteries which preserved what they could of that eternal connection with the past -just as other European cultures have done over there.
Saint Sava, his father Stefan Nemanja, Tsar Lazar, King Milutin, Tsar Dusan, and all the other members of the Nemanjic Royal Dynasty were builders of Churches and Monasteries. Those were their living legacies left to the Serbian people. Those are our Wailing Walls. Because of those hundreds of churches, Kosovo became known as the Land of Churches - Kosovo and Metohija. Today on this Good Friday we must shed our tears for the fact that NATO air planes have damaged our Gracanica Monastery, our Studenica Monastery, our Decani Monastery, and other Holy places in the sacred Land of Churches, in Kosovo and Metohija.. NATO would not even dream of damaging the sacred places of other faiths! Why are they damaging ours?
Why all this hostility towards Serbs everywhere? In World War II the Jews were the targets of Europe. At the threshold of the millennium, Serbs are the new targets. Part of the reason for this is the lack of knowledge in the western world of who we really are.
Chronicles Magazine of February 1997 reports that an American of Greek origin called a congressional office to protest US policies in Bosnia that would place Christians Serbs at risk. The staff member corrected him saying the Serbs were "so-called Christians". There are other examples of what the author, James Jatras, calls "Pravoslavophobia". We have heard negative comments on the radio this week about our Orthodox faith, too, from people who don't know what our Orthodox Christian faith teaches us. Pravoslavophobia. Would they say such things about other faiths? Would they say such things openly about the Jewish faith, the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faiths? At a time in history when we are supposed to respect each other' s beliefs and traditions, we Serbs are faced with Pravoslavophobia, an all-out attack on everything which we hold sacred.
In Njegos' Mountain Wreath - you know, that classic piece in Serbian literature which the European High Representative Carl Westendorp has now banned and delegated to a cultural death, Serdar Radonja says:
Over the whole of our Black Mountain The clouds have spread evenly everywhere. Everywhere one hears the echo of thunder, Everywhere below us the lightning flashes, And we, alone, are warmed by the sun.
The words seem very appropriate for these dark days when we Serbs feel very much alone in the world.
It is Good Friday and some influential Christian leaders have asked President Clinton and NATO to stop the bombing out of respect for this Holy time. The Pope, who is no friend of the Orthodox Serbs, asked NATO to stop the bombing during this time and sent a delegation to Belgrade to ask for peace.
Metropolitan Archibishop Pavlos of the Greek Orthodox Old Calendar Church wrote to President Clinton to put an end to this folly. In his letter he said:
"I presume your advisors have decided to bring peace by bombing one of Europe's oldest Christian civilizations into oblivion. Throughout history it is this very civilization that has always been a bulwark against those that came from the east to threaten Europe. It is the Serbians that are known as "the people of the gate" because they guarded the door to Europe in the Krajina. The Krajina Serbs are no more, thanks to a previous NATO strike in 1995. Do we want to eliminate one more Orthodox Christian civilization before the end of our century?
"... In 1941 ... Winston Churchill commented at the time that "the Serbs had found their soul". I am praying, Mr. President, that you find your soul and the vision to see the death that will be wrought in committing this folly. I pray you find the courage to face the American people and tell them we (America) made a mistake and that we must call off NATO air strikes. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God."
The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew who visited Toronto last June also spoke out against the NATO bombing.
Yesterday the influential Pat Robertson, leader of the Christian Right and candidate in the last U.S. Presidential election, also sent a letter to the White House saying;
"Dear Mr. President: I am writing you today to respectfully urge you to suspend the bombing of Serbia by NATO forces during the religious observance of Holy Week by both the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches. For Christians, there is no more important part of the year than Holy Week during which we commemorate the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.
"In the United States millions of individuals will go to church this week to pray for a peaceful and just end to the atrocities of the former Yugoslavian republics and for the safety of the men and women in our armed forces. Let us hope that the peaceful and God-loving peoples of Serbia and Kosovo will do so as well.
"You established a precedent for this last December when you limited the initial military action by the United States against Iraq to the period prior to the Muslim holy days of Ramadan.
"We have no quarrel with the people of Serbia and allowing them to honor their faith during this period may assist in the peaceful and speedy resolution of this crisis."
Archbishop Michael Peers of the Anglican Church of Canada stated:
"It' s not morally justifiable for Canada to participate in bombing Serb forces in Kosovo" and NATO's military action "fails to meet the tests provided in the Christian tradition, and widely accepted within our culture, for a morally justifiable military engagement."
The U.S. National Council of Churches opposed NATO's action.
The U.S .Catholic Bishops expressed "serious reservations" and urged "U.S. soldiers to examine their consciences on whether they should participate in the military action".
Project Ploughshares Chairman, Walter Pitman, said in a statement that "NATO made the wrong decision".
The Rt. Rev. Bill Phipps, Moderator of the United Church of Canada, the largest denomination in this country, supported the Project Ploughshares statement questioning NATO's bombing of Kosovo.
Nonetheless, the bombing continues. It's not the first time. It's happened before. On Easter Sunday, 1941 the German Nazis bombed the Serbs of Belgrade inflicting 20,000 deaths. Easter Sunday. On Easter Sunday, 1944 the Americans also bombed the Serbs of Belgrade killing thousands more. Easter Sunday. Both then proceeded to bomb other cities in Serbia on this Holiest of days. Today 55 years later, it appears NATO will be bombing the Serbs again, on Easter Sunday, on Orthodox Palm Sunday, and quite possibly next week on Orthodox Easter Sunday. The symbolism of inflicting death and destruction on the day dedicated to the Resurrection and the renewal of life speaks volumes.
Canadian Serbs usually begin each community gathering with our Canadian and Serbian anthems, but this time I would like to conclude my speech with a word about anthems.
A national anthem is yet another sacred symbol of a nation. In Britain the anthem is "God Save the Queen", a hymn for the protection of the monarch and, for generations of English Canadians,
a connection to the land of their forefathers, over there. In the U.S. the anthem is a tribute to the American flag, to "the land of the free and the home of the brave". In Canada our anthem sings with pride about our wonderful country and prays to the Lord to keep it glorious and free: "God keep our land glorious and free. O Canada we stand on guard for thee. O Canada we stand on guard for thee". On this Good Friday we join all our Canadian neighbours and the people of the world in praying for a peaceful solution which is even-handed and fair, something which is lacking in the Kosovo crisis right now. Let's pay tribute to all our Canadian soldiers who have found themselves in this unnecessary conflict and pray for their safe return home to Canada.
The anthem of the Serbian nation, "Boze Pravde", came into existence in the 1890's at the conclusion of the devastating results of the Battle of Kosovo 500 years earlier. When it was first sung as part of a play called Marko's Sword (Markova Sablj a) performed in Belgrade, the people stood up in approval, just as the people had stood up when the Alleluia chorus of Handel's Messiah was first sung. "Boze Pravde" was a hymn to the Lord which reflected what the Serbian people felt. And after 500 years of Crucifixion under foreign occupation, our ancestors still maintained their hope. It was a prayer of thanks for preservation, for a bright future and, like the English anthem, for the protection of the Sovereign. No other people in the world cross themselves before their anthem; our forefathers initiated that tradition. Here in Canada we always sing "Boze Pravde" in Serbian, but I am going to read to you this English translation as our connection with our forefathers, over there, as our prayer to the God of Justice from a people, the Serbian people, who have suffered and endured enormous injustice throughout their entire history. Let us cross ourselves.
God of Justice who hath saved us From destruction to this day, Hearken now and hear our voices, Bring salvation from this day. With Thy mighty hand protect us, Guide the future Serbian race.
O Lord save, O Lord nurture Serbian people and our King.
O Lord save the Serbian Sovereign, Serbs this prayer to Thee do sing!