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Great Martyr Lazarus (Tsar Lazar, King Lazar of Serbia,Lazar the Serb)

Kosovo's Hero Tsar Lazar: Choosing Faith over Throne

Saint Lasarus of Serbia

The Holy, Glorious and Right-victorious Great Martyr Lazarus, also known as Tsar Lazar, King Lazar of Serbia, or Lazar the Serb, led Serbia at a time when the expanding Ottoman Empire under Sultan Murad I put Serbians under extreme pressure to convert to Islam, threatening Christianity's future in the region. Amidst Serbia's fragmentation due to power struggles among its princes, Saint Lazarus exemplified genuine Christian leadership, embodying Saint Savva's ideal of "everything for Christ – Christ above all." He chose spiritual salvation over earthly power, ultimately accepting martyrdom in the Battle of Kosovo against the Ottomans.

From nobleman to Tsar

He was born into the family of a nobleman at the court of the Serbian King Stefan Dušan (1331–1355) and raised in the Christian faith. Lazarus abundantly multiplied the talents given to him by God and soon surpassed many of his peers, catching the attention of King Dušan himself and earning his favour. Lazarus was taken to the royal court in Skopje and soon began to participate in state affairs. At King Dušan's court, his faith, honesty, and courage earned him respect and favour. As a skilled warrior and commander, he married the king's noble relative Milica, and together they raised a pious family blessed with seven children.

During Dušan's reign, the Serbian Empire flourished, but his sudden death led to its disintegration. Prince Uglesha's defeat by the Ottomans in 1371 marked the beginning of a dark time for Christians in the south of the Empire, where he had reigned. Prince Lazar of Serbia remained a loyal friend and supporter of Prince Uros, who reigned in the North. After Uros’s death, he ascended to the throne as "the pious and autocratic lord of Serbia and the Coastlands, the great Prince Lazar, in Christ God."

Defender of the faith and Serbia

As Tsar of Serbia, Lazarus demonstrated his devotion by becoming a patron and benefactor to numerous holy churches and monasteries, "fill[ing] his dominion's mountains and hills with monastic abodes," according to Patriarch Daniel III. Lazar's compassion extended to orphans and the infirm, establishing hostels, hospitals, and schools at churches and monasteries, including one in Kruševac for his own children and others. Serbian Lazar’s royal court became a haven for scholars, iconographers, and master jewellers fleeing Ottoman oppression in the southern Serbian and Greek lands.

King Lazar of Serbia

Increasingly, however, his land was coming under attack from the Ottomans. As the Ottomans advanced, they left behind "fire-scorched" cities, destroyed "monasteries and churches of the pious," and committed "so many murders that rivers were flowing blood," Prince Lazar fought to unite the Serbs against the invaders who, in the words of Justin Popovich, “were no longer satisfied with the payment of tribute and taxes by the Christians, but sought to completely subjugate and enslave all Christian peoples."

Despite his efforts, internal strife and betrayals persisted. Lazar himself narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Prince Nikola Altomanović. Nikola invited the unarmed prince for a conversation, and his servant stabbed him with a knife. The golden cross Lazar always wore on his chest prevented a fatal wound. In the words of Constantine the Philosopher, the hope of change seemed distant, as the people continued "sinning and not turning to the One who changes all things."

In the face of a decisive battle with the Ottomans, the Tsar convened a council with his nobles and issued a general call to all Serbs to rally against the invaders:

"Whoever is a Serb and of Serb birth,
And of Serb blood and heritage,
And comes not to the Battle of Kosovo,
May he never have the progeny his heart desires,
And let him be cursed from all ages to all ages!"

Yet, not all responded to this plea. Assistance from the Western Christians did not come either.

Kosovo Battle

Battle of Kosovo, modern icon, Serbia

Prophet Elijah visited Lazarus as a grey falcon on the eve of the final battle, offering him a choice between an earthly or heavenly kingdom: keeping his throne by surrendering to the Ottomans or suffering a bloody defeat on the battlefield. Lazar chose the eternal, declaring to his soldiers, "We die with Christ, to live forever."

Sixteen wounds and a crown: the martyrdom of Lazar

The Serbian Lazar’s final battle occurred at Cosovo on 15 June 1389. A Serbian commander infiltrated the Turkish Sultan's tent, striking him down and throwing the Turkish ranks into disarray. Lazar fought valiantly, "bear[ing] sixteen wounds when he mounted his third horse, as the first two had been slain beneath him," according to one chronicler. Yet, Bayazid, who took over the command from his slain father, turned the tide of the battle, capturing and beheading the noble Tsar Lazar and many of his commanders.

Saint Lazarus’ body was buried by monks in the Church of the Ascension in Priština. Nearly a year later, his sons Stefan and Vuk, along with the clergy and the people, uncovered the remains of the great martyr and found his body incorrupt. The Peć Chronicle of that time attests that it emitted a beautiful fragrance. Thus, the Almighty Lord granted the incorruption of Tsar Lazar's body as undeniable proof of his martyrdom for Christ, his godly life, and his sanctity.

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For contemporary Christians, Saint Lazarus' life serves as a guide in gaining a Christian understanding of our own lives. His days on earth were an ascent to the Kingdom of Heaven. He showed us the way to focus on "growing in faith and piety" rather than "the perishable goods of this age." Let us pray, then, to become not just readers, but doers of the Gospel's word concerning the Kingdom of Heaven: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31).

 Photos from pravoslavie.ru, tatmitropolia.ru, fotoload.ru

June 12, 2024
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