Anticipating Kassia’s Cosmic Hymn

by V.K. McCarty | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Русский | Српски

Foot washing

In preparing to participate in the services leading to Pascha, a memorable element of the Liturgy for many of the faithful is the Hymn of St. Kassia (ca.810-ca. 865 CE), “Lord, the Woman Fallen into Many Sins.” It is remembered as a heartwarming centerpiece of the Tuesday Evening service, and sung as the Doxostikon of the Aposticha, when the Wednesday “Bridegroom Matins,” is offered. The robust popularity of the “Kassiani,” as the hymn itself is often called, may stem from its appealing melody and the opportunity it provides for the chant to be elaborated on the tune with flourishes of extemporaneous melismatic ornaments which leave worshippers spellbound. Emotional urgency simmers through the story in light of the approaching Passion of Our Lord.

Because the text cries out from the inner landscape of the woman’s soul, there is a graceful fluid commingling in it of both the Gospel women who anoint Jesus at supper, the one in Luke read at the service (7:36-50) and the one in Matthew (26:6-13) as well; and, it is the same haunting amalgamation of women used by St. Romanos in his longer metrical homily, the kontakion, “On the Harlot.” So, this is a hymn rich with paradox and parallels, and a credit to the scriptural literacy of the Orthodox listener. Like Romanos, Kassia gives voice to the woman, here praising God for the majesty of Creation:

Accept the springs of my tears,
you who with clouds spread out
the water of the sea:
bend down to me
to the lamentations of my heart.*

Think of the pleasure her spiritual father, St. Theodore the Studite, must have taken in receiving this troparion from his disciple, the Abbess Kassia, his spiritual daughter whose feast the Church celebrates on September 7. This theological jewel interpretively unfolds the Gospel lesson for us and reveals the redemptive mystery threaded through the working of God’s Salvation—the merciful and miraculous economy of Salvation—so that we can by repentance approach the Lord’s Divinity (Theoteta), and by that theosis, cosmically dwell in the life of heaven with him.

You who made the heavens incline
by your ineffable humiliation.

Our sin separates us so harshly from God; yet, by the gift of the Incarnation, the Lord Jesus Christ is close enough for us to touch, each and every sinner.

I will tenderly kiss your sacred feet,
I will wipe them again
with tresses of my hair.

From ninth-century Constantinople, St. Kassia is teaching us that moments of true weeping repentance sacramentalize our personal experience of faith—so, the repentant woman is a powerful and useful topos. Her story illuminates our own creatureliness and our dependence on the boundless love that created us; for knitted into each and every one of us, along with the ability to choose actions that match or oppose the will of God, is the desire for unity with our merciful Creator, the desire to please God.

As a powerful topos, the Woman Fallen into Many Sins can help us all, brothers and sisters, plagued by the disappointment of our sins. For we, too, like the sinner on bended knee before Christ, see him as Lord. That the mysterious woman entering the dinner party, with her jar of fragrant Myrrh and Spikenard, recognizes Christ as Lord to the depths of her soul may be what spurred the inspiration of Kassia’s hymn in the first place. There, kneeling before Christ, one wonders, in fact, if that provocative sensation, of oil-fragrant hair anointing his feet—just think of that—clung in memory, so that when Jesus sought a powerful gesture to help teach his disciples the service and forgiving components of apostolic ministry, he girded himself in a towel and he washed their feet as well, to show them how to be servant-ministers.

The Abbess hymnographer St. Kassia certainly describes evocatively the experience of sin—oistros akalasias—the sharply addictive temptation of dark pleasure. When desire at midnight overtakes the sinner; indeed, longing for sin can poison even our own striving for Salvation.

Woe to me, she says,
for night holds for me
the ecstasy of intemperance
gloomy and moonless,
a desire for sin.

What an awful realization: that our own tendency toward sin can blot out our awareness even of the love of God. Our priorities become fractured. How hopeless is that?—that our very desire for God can become refracted into something poisonous and addictive, so that sinful action begets more sinful action—and how can we stop the spiral in the moonless (asélenos) night, as Kassia says? By turning and acknowledging God’s love. This action of turning and facing the shame of our mistakes has about it the glimmer of a sacrament, doesn’t it, because even in the depth of the most sinful desire, the love of God is there, abiding, surrounding you. And as the woman in the hymn is bending down herself, she asks the Lord to bend down from Heaven to receive her lamentations.

Her contrition initiates a transformation: for in that very instance of recognizing the supper guest as Christ the Lord and asking forgiveness, the repentant woman is seen rising to function like a Holy Myrrhbearer—an astonishing and fitting parallel—one which can galvanize your prayer. Then, in another remarkably insightful parallel, Kassia identifies a connection between the woman kissing the feet of Jesus and the sound of the Lord—his footsteps—approaching Eve in the Garden.

Those feet whose sound
Eve heard in Paradise
in the afternoon
and hid in fear.

Kassia mystically stitches together the Gospel anointing-story with the Creation story in a liturgical tapestry which illuminates the transforming mercy of God in both of them—our God who judges and forgives. Indeed, the Priest chanting the Kassiani transports the listener to the ancient Garden of Eden—lush and pristine—yet heartbreaking as God seeks out Eve. So, we too, taste the sinful remorse of Eve, even there in paradise, and we know only too well Eve’s shame hearing the Lord approaching in the cool of the day. For Kassia allows us to see at once the woman bending to kiss the feet of Jesus from the Gospel reading, and Eve as well. Hearing Kassia’s Hymn, here on our Holy Week pilgrimage, we witness the woman’s first glimpse of forgiven hope on yet another Great and Holy Wednesday. For even here, on our knees in tears, we can rejoice in the ineffable gift that divine love taking on human nature is the route to Salvation, and relief from the savage spiral of human failing.

Would that we were, each of us, sinless like Our Pure and Holy Theotokas, fully submitting to God’s will. But alas, here in our mortal apparel, if we are honest, we realize that we have at times defied God, like that first woman and that first man, and our sin muddies the water of our relationship to God. And there is also that paradox in our society, isn’t there, that intimacy experienced between a man and a woman can end up crediting the man with prowess and condemning the woman as a harlot. 

It is also possible to hear all this and to be slyly entertained, to relish the fantasy of some other sinner performing before your mind’s eye. But this hymn is offered to help all believers. Therefore, beware the tantalizing arousal, sparked by someone else’s sin—it may kindle your own sin-spiral away from the love of God; when indeed, the essence of this spiritual pilgrimage to Pascha is your own ability to be forgiven by the love of God. For the true lamentations of the heart are those of faithful men grieving their sins and also faithful women, all made in the likeness of God, and good at heart, but falling away into sin from time to time.

We each decry the multitude of our sins, and bending down, ask the mercy of the Lord in forgiving us when we repent. Every chanting participant, every hearer of the hymn, all of us are joined together in church pleading for the immeasurable depth of God’s mercy, knowing divine compassion can still be experienced in repentance. Kassia’s Hymn helps us lift the Gospel reading off the page and embody it in our hearts, where we encounter the Lord Jesus Christ, as ever, in a vision of paradox and transformation and awe.

Nota bene: Hearing the “Kassiani” in a big church is such a prayerful pleasure; but, for those of us who worship in smaller Orthodox communities, there are still beautiful ways to hear Kassia’s God-loving hymn as part of your pilgrimage toward Pascha. Here are a couple of suggestions:

This CD of Kassia’s hymns has been my favorite for years, with the women’s voices of VocaMe truly making this beautiful troparion take flight in the heart. Additionally, I’m delighted to report that there is a new and rather important recording available, one that just came out from Cappella Romana led by Alexander Lingus supported by elegant scholarship.

*Note that the translation for the Hymn of Kassia used in this meditation for St. Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Mission is that of Gheorghita Zugrava from his Columbia University dissertation, Kassia the Melodist and the Making of a Byzantine Hymnographer.

V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. Her new book, From Their Lips: Voices of Early Christian Women, is available from Gorgias Press.