The personal name Sava is of a different origin than the name of the river Sava which in Belgrade forms a confluence with the Danube. The personal name comes into Serbian via Greek, originating from the Old Aramaic (the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ), meaning an ‘old man’, ‘grandfather’.
St Sava is considered the spiritual father of the Serbian people.
Serbs started to adopt Christianity in the 7th century, but the first great Christianisation was in the period of Prince Mutimir in 879. Owing to the holy brothers Cyril and Methodius, the two great learned men who brought education to the Slavic peoples, along with their disciples and followers, Serbs embraced Christianity. The holy Serbian King John Vladimir is remembered as one of the first Serbs who suffered martyrdom for the Christian faith. By their deeds and lives, venerable John of Rila, Gabriel of Lesnovo, Prochorus of Pcinja and later Joakim Osogovski established the Orthodox faith on the pagan Balkans not only in Serbs but in other nations as well.
Christianisation of Serbs was not an easy process, particularly as it came from Byzantium, which Serbia was often in conflict with. In fact, Orthodox Christianity put down its roots with the glorious and holy Nemanjic Dynasty.
St Sava was born in 1169 as Rastko, the youngest son to the great Serbian prince Stephen Nemanja. His father gave him the administration of the region of Zahumlje (present Herzegovina), but still as a young man, Rastko fled to Mount Athos to join the monastic colony – now as a monk, Sava – accepting the life of austerity in earnest. He lived fasting and praying, serving others and studying the holy books. Nemanja follows the steps of his son and becomes a monk, dying as monk Simeon. Sava’s mother also goes to a convent and dies as a nun Anastasia.
With the Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Sava managed to secure autocephaly (independence) for the Serbian Church and became the first Serbian archbishop. With his father, he renewed the monastery of Hilandar and then many other monasteries, churches and school all over the Serbian lands. He was tireless in his church activities, but also a diplomat serving his people. As a lawmaker, he translated and shaped for Serbs laws on the Church and state activities. His Nomocanon, the first Serbian ecclesiastic legislature is of a great significance to the origins of Serbian history of law. St Sava was the first Serbian theologian and is considered a founder of an independent Serbian literature. His literary talent, Sava expressed in his hagiographies and poetry. He wrote a hagiography of and church memorial service to his father, St Simeon. He travelled a lot and as a pilgrim and a diplomat made fast connections between the Serbian people and the Orthodox ones of the East.
St Sava also mediated between his brothers Stephen and Vukan to appease their conflict of rule, and did the same with the Serbs and their neighbours. He was respected and liked all over the Balkans. He died in Trnovo, Bulgaria during the reign of the emperor Asen, on the Epiphany in 1236. King Vladislav moved his body to the Mileseva Monastery. Serbian people sung about St Sava, told tales and spun legends. His day is on 27 January (14 January by the Julian calendar). The two hagiographies of St Sava, that are considered the most important works Serbian mediaeval literature, were written by Theodosius and Domentian.
After a great Serbian rising against the Turks in Banat, retaliating to the insubordinate people, Sinan Pasha took St Sava’s remains from the Mileseva Monastery and burnt them in Vracar, Belgrade on 27 April 1595 (10 May by the Julian calendar). Every year the Church marks that day as a great victory of St Sava because the Turks were quite confident that by burning the remains, they would undermine the Orthodox faith and diminish the influence St Sava had on Serbs.
St Sava, completely devoted to God, but still serving his people, a hermit and an intercessor, a man of great Christian love and mercy, but also a practical organiser, a diplomat, patron of science and schooling, until the present day has remained for Serbs the greatest and most significant model.
St Sava to Irinej, 1221:
“The East considers us as West and the West considers us as East. Some of us have understood our place in the conflict erroneously, saying, we are neither, but some say that we are only one or the other! We are, let me tell you, Irinej, destined to be the East on the West and the West on the East!”