Icon courtesy of “Kosovski Bozur”, a magazine of the children of Kosovo and Metohija
Today is a major feast in the calendar of the Serbian Orthodox Church, when we commemorate both an event from our Serbian history but also a person, one major figure from our history who defines our Serbian identity as people of God.
St. Paul wrote in his epistle to the Philipians, “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things” (Phil 4:8). It is, therefore, on this day that we mediate upon and remember those who fought and gave their lives for those things which are true and pure and of good report. On this day of Vidovdan, the feast of the holy and Great-martyr Prince Lazar of Kosovo, we remember in our prayers not only those who fought on that Kosovo field at the end of the fourteenth century but each year a Parastos is served on this day for all the heroes of Kosovo and all Serbs who gave their lives from the Christian faith and freedom from the Battle of Kosovo to the present day.
There was a time in our history when Serbia was an empire. It was during the reign of Tsar Dušan, known as Dušan the Mighty, that Serbia reached its territorial peak. It was during his rule, in the year 1346, that the Serbian church became a patriarchate. It was during that era, around the year 1329, that Lazar Hrebeljanovic was born in the city of Prilepac. He was brought up in the Christian faith and was known as a humble young man; he was brave and of a noble heart and soul. He richly multiplied the gifts with which God had endowed him. He was so gifted that he not only surpassed his peers, but even attracted the attention of Dušan the Mighty and obtained his favor. He was taken into the imperial palace and soon thereafter was involved in affairs of the state.
Soon, he even became the mighty tsar’s in-law as Dušan gave him for his wife his own relative, Milica, who was a descendent of the holy dynasty of St. Symeon and his son St. Sava, the Nemanjic dynasty. It was after their marriage that Lazar received the title ‘knez’, or prince. He became a general in Dušan’s army since he was skilled in the art of warfare and in commanding troops. It was at this time in history that a great peril was threatening all Christians and rulers in the Balkans in the form of the Turkish armies which were penetrating into Europe from Asia Minor more and more often. Dušan was marching against them with his army when he became ill and suddenly died in the year 1355.
Dušan’s son, Uroš, unlike his mighty father was nicknamed “the weak” and it was during his reign that his father’s empire was carved up as some of the Serbian feudal lords who had been under tsar Dušan didn’t want to be under his son. Uroš was by nature gracious and meek, he was only nineteen when he became tsar and incapable of uniting the Serbian provinces. The only one who stayed with him was Prince Lazar, who remained at the palace and was Uroš’s most faithful and devoted nobleman. It was Lazar’s goal to unite all the Serbian provinces and to gather all Christians together in the struggle against the Turks. In 1371 tsar Uroš passed away but Lazar continued in his efforts of uniting the Serbian lands. Soon he created an alliance with some provinces and thus he became “in Christ our God the devout and autonomous lord of the Serbian and Coastal Lands, the great Prince Stefan Lazar”, but even though he was only a prince the whole Serbian nation called him their tsar.
As ruler Lazar was credited with many things, renovations and building of churches and monasteries. But, the advance of the Turks continued. In 1387 they captured Thessalonica and in 1386, the Serbian city of Niš, under the leadership of their sultan Murat I. Murat’s army even penetrated into Bosnia but the brave general of King Tvrtko engaged the Turkish army and heroically defeated it. Murat even clashed with Lazar’s army in 1387 but Murat was unsuccessful and fled from Prince Lazar. But all this did was make the Turkish army more determined and the Sultan began to build and gather a mighty, huge army.
The battle was approaching and, just as the young tsar Uroš struggled with uniting the different Serbian groups there was little to no loyalty to the Prince for the upcoming battle. In fact, Lazar had to summon the Serbs by begging them and imploring them. At a national assembly at Kruševac his message to all Serbs was: “Whoever fails to come to the battle at Kosovo, may his hands produce none of the fruits of the earth, neither red wine nor white wheat.”
It’s interesting that, when we celebrate St. Sava’s feastday, his entire life story is retold, yet when we think of the holy and great martyr Prince Lazar we think instantly, and almost exclusively of the Battle of Kosovo. Yet, the things mentioned this morning are only a small number of his many accomplishments as Serbian ruler. For instance, when Dušan became tsar it caused a division between the Serbian patriarchate and Constantinople. After the tsar’s death his wife, Tsaritsa Jelena tried to heal these wounds but, in the end, it was Prince Lazar who achieved it. In other words, the same Prince Lazar who worked and labored so hard at healing the wounds between the two churches; the same Prince Lazar who worked and labored so hard at uniting the Serbian people, who wanted peace and unity among the Serbian lands, this same man leads an army, indeed the entire Serbian nation, to do battle against a much larger force. This is precisely what he is remembered for and this is the essence of this holy feastday – the choice the holy and great martyr Lazar of Kosovo made, his choosing to go to battle and defend those things which the Apostle Paul calls pure and noble and just.
More than the actual battle, therefore, it was the choice Lazar made for which he is glorified. First of all, it was his choice to go to battle. The choice that he made was ultimately the choice for freedom but not a freedom “at any cost”, that is, not a freedom which would be apart from God. In setting out to the battle at Kosovo field Lazar had made his choice not for the earthly kingdom which, as he confessed, “is only for a brief time but the Kingdom of Heaven is unto the ages of ages.” St. Sava’s ideal and plan for his nation was: “Give up everything for Christ, but Christ for nothing.” No one ever realized this ideal and plan to such a full extent as the holy and great martyr, Prince Lazar.
It was William Makepeace Thackery who said, “It is not dying for the faith that’s hard, it’s living up to it.” Our commemoration of St. Lazar, and for that matter all the Saints of the church, is our commemoration of those holy men and women who lived up to their faith. In St. Paul’s epistle, after he says we should meditate on things which are pure and noble and just, he writes, “the things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do…” (v.9). It is in this doing that gives meaning to our remembering and celebrating the lives of the Saints. This is that choice all of us are called to make individually – to follow in their footsteps, who followed in the footsteps of the Apostles who followed Christ’s example, who did that which was the will of the Father.
When the Turks, after the battle, saw how much diginity this Christian Prince displayed in accepting death, as he was beheaded, they allowed the monks to take the body of their holy ruler in order to give him a proper burial. In fact, a year later, when the remains of Lazar were uncovered, they were discovered to be undecayed, producing an exceedingly fragrant scent. In the end, St. Lazar, who chose the Heavenly Kingdom over this passing one, remained, through God’s grace, with his people, giving them, through his holy relics, hope in the resurrection and in their own salvation. The memory of St. Lazar remained with the people as remains with us today as we pray that, through the prayers of St. Lazar and all the holy martyrs, God’s mercy might be with all of us. Amen.