The notion of a “prophetic witness and martyr,” as the Episcopal Lectionary styles Jan Hus, resonates deeply with Mormonism, which reveres Joseph Smith for having “sealed his mission and his works with his own blood.” That prophetic witnesses often become martyrs indicates just how dangerous such figures are, how threatening to established orders and comfortable hierarchies. Hus, like Smith, developed considerable authority and social capital within certain circles while arousing significant animosity from others. Prophetic practice seems threatening precisely because it is powerful, hinting at the possibility of a world turned upside down.
Hus, ordained a priest in 1400 after completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Prague, used his pulpit to challenge what he saw as ecclesiastical corruption, running all the way up to the popes (there were simultaneously two, and for a time even three popes during Hus’s lifetime). The story of Abinadi testifying before King Noah and his priests intersects with Hus’s story on two levels. First, Hus, like Alma, believed in an unpopular prophet, when other priests did not: John Wycliffe. Second, like Abinadi himself, Hus faced a hostile priestly audience at the Council of Constance. Charged with heresy, Hus would not recant, echoing Abinadi’s statement: “I will not recall the words which I have spoken unto you concerning this people, for they are true.” As they did with Abinadi, priests burned Hus at the stake.
Perversely, the perpetrators of prophetic martyrdoms are often priests. Pope Alexander V (even after Hus sided with his attempt to resolve the Western Schism) could not tolerate Wycliffite teaching, and refused Hus’s offer to renounce any belief whose falsity could be proved from the Bible. Abinadi’s teaching powerfully undercut the authority of Noah’s priests. Even Jesus, prophetic witness par excellence, inveighed against the priests of his time, saying that they would kill him just as they killed the prophets—because he hoped to gather the children of Jerusalem under his wing, not theirs.
Priests, as enforcers of righteousness and correct religious practice, don’t like being told to repent. Prophetic witnesses like Hus deliver the message of the angel to Sardis: wake up and strengthen what remains. A lesser person than a prophet might see in the ossification of priestly practice nothing but a dead formalism and the decay of hypocrisy, but prophets discern amidst the cold ashes embers of life and hope to rekindle a flame. A prophet might use the very real prospect of hell to reopen the possibility of heaven. A prophet’s mouth can redeem the words spoken by Job’s supposed friend Eliphaz, extending the invitation to agree with God, return to prayer, and find deliverance. A prophet prays with the Psalmist for God to uphold her, loving righteousness but humbly aware that she cannot sustain it alone. The divine fire in her bones cannot stay alight without the gentle blowing of the spirit—that gentle force whose power oddly threatens those who believe that they know what righteousness is.
Will we also kill the prophets and stone those whom God has sent to us? The dangerous quality of prophetic speech makes it difficult to discern who is a prophet and who is a mere rabble-rouser and to work out whether we should believe those in power or those levying fierce critiques of power along the lines of the Hebrew prophets for whose deaths Jesus condemned the leaders of his day. Being a prophet may be risky, but so is choosing to believe in one, which requires putting our own consciences and powers of discernment on the line. May we all, therefore, pray for the spirit to guide us toward a more sure word of prophecy.
Jan Hus, Prophetic Witness and Martyr, 1415
The Collect: Almighty God, who through the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of your Son Jesus Christ breathed prophecy into your servant Jan Hus: kindle us your children with holy fire, that instead of killing the prophets we might have the wisdom to live by the spirit of prophecy, trying every word by the divinity you have planted in us, until we might become one in you, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, as you are One God. Amen.
To signal the continued breathing of life into old forms, here is a 21st century setting that combines the 8th-century hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” with the text “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” from the Proper of the Roman Catholic missal. The setting is by Michael John Trotta.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgDSyc7O3lg]
Here is a translation of the text:
Come Holy Spirit,
Visit the souls of your own:
With your heavenly grace fill
The hearts that you have created.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful
and kindle in them the fire of Thy love.
Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created.
And you will renew the face of the earth.