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Ceremonial and Homiletic Rhetoric. The Sermon on Law and Grace


A place of honour among the genres of Byzantine literature was held by the writings of the Church Fathers, theologians and preachers. These sermons and homilies by Byzantine authors were widely known in Old Russia, and original works by Russian writers had appeared by the eleventh century: The Sermon on Law and Grace of Metropolitan Hilarion and the sermons of Bishop Luke Zhidyata of Novgorod and Abbot Theodosius of the Kiev Crypt Monastery.69 In the twelfth century Old Russian literature was enriched by such masterpieces of rhetorical oratory as the sermons of Cyril of Turov.

The Sermon on Law and Grace. The Sermon on Law and Grace, written by the Kievan priest Hilarion (later Metropolitan of Kiev) was, Nikolai Rozov assumes, first delivered by him in 1049 in honour of the completion of the fortress wall around Kiev.70

However, the importance of the Sermon extends far beyond the framework of the genre of the ceremonial festive sermons delivered to the faithful in church. Hilarion’s Sermon is a kind of ecclesiastical-political treatise extolling the Russian land and its princes.

The Sermon begins with a lengthy theological discourse. Hilarion contrasts the Old and New Testaments, pursuing the idea that the Old Testament is law established for the Jewish people alone, whereas the New Testament is grace that extends to all peoples without exception who have adopted Christianity. Hilarion returns several times to this idea which is of great importance to him; in order to substantiate it he analyses the symbolism of Biblical imagery, quotes sayings of the Church Fathers, and uses all sorts of arguments to support his thesis of the superiority of Christianity to Judaism which was intended for one people alone, and the high calling of the Christian peoples.

The first, dogmatic part of the Sermon leads up to the central idea of the work: Prince Vladimir of his own accord (not on the advice or insistence of the Greek clergy) performed a “great and wondrous” act—the baptising of Russia. Vladimir is the “teacher and mentor” of the Russian land, thanks to whom the “grace- giving faith” has “reached our Russian people”. The role of Vladimir as the baptiser of Russia grows to universal proportions: Vladimir is as “wise” and as “pious” as Constantine the Great himself, the emperor of the “two Romes”, the East and the West, who, according to ecclesiastical tradition proclaimed Christianity the official religion in Byzantium and was greatly revered in the empire. Similar deeds and merits confer the right to similar respect. Thus Hilarion introduces his audience to the idea of the need to recognise Vladimir as a saint. He puts him on a level with the Apostles John, Thomas and Mark, who performed the service of converting different countries and lands to Christianity.

Hilarion seeks to extol the power of the Russian land and stress its authority. The phraseology of the church sermon is sometimes replaced by that of the chronicle eulogy: Vladimir’s forefathers, Igor and Svyatoslav, were renowned throughout the world for their courage and bravery, their “victories and valour”, and they ruled not in an “unknown land”, but in Russia, which “is known and heard by the four corners of the earth”. Vladimir himself is not only a faithful Christian, but a mighty “autocrat of his land” who has subjugated neighbouring countries, “some by peace, but the unruly by the sword”.

The third and final part of the Sermon is dedicated to Yaroslav the Wise. Hilarion depicts him not only as the continuer of the spiritual behests of Vladimir, not only as the zealous builder of new churches, but as a worthy “deputy … of the dominion” of his father. Even in prayer Hilarion does not forget about Russia’s wordly, political needs: he prays God to “drive away” enemies, establish peace, “subdue” neighbouring countries, make the boyars see reason, fortify towns… This civic element in a church sermon is easily explained by the situation in the 1030s and 1040s, when Yaroslav was doing his utmost to gain the independence of the Russian Church and Russian state policy and when the idea of the equality (and not subordination) of Russia in its relations with Byzantium was assuming most acute forms, influencing even church building. For example, churches in Old Russia were given the names of the famous cathedrals in Constantinople: the cathedrals of St Sophia in Kiev and Novgorod, the churches of St Irene and St George in Kiev, the Golden Gate in Kiev, and so on. Politicians and architects saw Kiev as a kind of rival to Constantinople.

There is a well-founded theory that Hilarion was also the author of the first work on Russian history, the cycle of tales on the conversion of Russia to Christianity, which may have marked the beginning of Russian chronicle-writing. This theory is, sup­ported by numerous textual parallels in the two works. 3