When modern readers open their Bibles they generally take for granted the “Good Book” will be in a language they’re comfortable reading—English or Spanish or Korean or one of hundreds of vernaculars. During the sacrament of communion Christians rarely think twice about receiving both bread, often gluten-free, and wine or grape juice from the cup, representing the body and blood of Christ respectively.
But 600 years ago, these matter-of-fact 21st century occurrences would likely have you labeled a heretic, put on trail for your crimes and found guilty by the religious hierarchy that, in turn, would hand you over to secular authorities to be burned at the stake.
Such was the fate of priest Jan Hus, the former president of Prague’s Charles University, a religious reformer, martyr and Czech national hero. Influenced by reformer John Wycliffe, the English theologian whose writings were eventually banned and burned by the Catholic Church, Hus decried the Catholic teaching that the Bible could only be reproduced in Latin. He railed against what he saw as the clergy’s stranglehold on “access to God” and the teaching that the intercessions of a priest or a saint were required for a person’s prayers reach God. He was absolutely incensed by the church’s practice of selling indulgences, the “golden ticket” that reduced or absolved one’s sins and opened a clearer path to heaven.
When it came to the sacrament of Holy Communion, Hus dismissed the tenet of transubstantiation that asserts the elements of Holy Communion become the actual body and blood of Christ at the moment of consecration. Instead, he taught while Christ is present during the sacrament, the bread and the contents of the cup only represent Jesus’ body and blood. A century later Martin Luther defined this belief as “Impanation.” Hus also distributed communion among the people more frequently, challenging what had been a once-a-year practice.
Hus’ reformist views inspired a legion of followers—the Hussites. Hus’s teachings also unfortunately caught the eye of the liturgical Council of Constance, which tried and convicted Hus on June 5th and 8th in 1415, followed shortly by his burning at the stake on July 6th. His execution sparked outrage among Czechs, prompting the Hussite Wars which led to the Bohemian Reformation.
Many have speculated that without Hus, there may not have been Martin Luther to fulfill Hus’ prophesy that someone would pick up his mantle of reform a century after his death.
Six hundred years later, a plurality within Hus’ homeland claims to be atheists or non-religious people. Yet, Hus’ legacy saying, that “truth prevails,” is embedded in the Czech psyche. He consistently ranks high in Top 10 lists of influential Czechs. The anniversary of his execution has been a national holiday since 1990.
For this year’s 600th anniversary of his death, Prague will celebrate HusFest 2015 on July 5th and 6th. The two-day event features parades, symposia, symphonies, souvenirs, theatre works and tours highlighting the historical places of Hus’ career.
Jim Nedelka will be in Prague next month covering the festivities for the Presbyterian News Service. A member and Ruling Elder at Jan Hus Presbyterian Church & Neighborhood House in New York City, Jim has written for PNS since 2007. He most recently detailed the memorial service held for the combined remains of some 200 congregants from many racial backgrounds discovered in a forgotten burial vault under the site of what had been an abolitionist congregation: New York’s Spring Street Presbyterian Church.