Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Chapter Title

Luke 7.36-50 relates the story of the Sinful Woman who anointed Christ at the beginning of His public ministry. A Pharisee named Simon invited him to a meal. "When he arrived at the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table, a woman who had a bad name in the town came in. She had heard that he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. She waited behind Him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment (Luke 7:36-38).15

Shocked by the woman's intrusion, Simon wondered if his guest was indeed a prophet. Would a true prophet allow a sinful woman to touch him? But Christ reprimanded Simon, and he forgave the penitent woman her many sins, saying to her, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (Luke 7.50).

With this Lukan story began the Sinful Woman's long career in Christian literature. Although Christ had promised a mnemosynon (Matt. 26.l3, Mark 14.9) to the good woman who anointed him in Bethany just before the Crucifixion, the "memorial" fell instead to the bad woman the hamartolos, "sinner" (Luke 7.37, 39) of the third Gospel.

Together with the Publican and the Prodigal Son the Sinful Woman became a principal paradeigma or "example" of Lenten metanoia or "repentance." Her story was elaborated by theologians, preachers and hymnographers, and repeated in the prose and poetry of countless sermons and hymns. Most of these, including Kassiane's hymn, were entitled: Εις την Πορνην, for it had early been decided that the woman whom Luke had simply designated as αμαπρωλος was a harlot. Consequently, the harsh condemnatory word, πορνη, appears prominently in Lenten sermons and hymns. Kassiane's hymn is a conspicuous exception. In the fourth century Saint Ephraim Syros preached a colorful sermon on the penitent harlot.16 Two centuries later Saint Romanos the Melodos wrote a long hymn on the same interesting theme.17

In the course of centuries the repertory increased without interruption. The Orthros of Holy Wednesday includes a number of representative hymns on the subject of the Sinful Woman or harlot. ;Besides Kassiane's troparion it includes a triodion by Saint Kosmas of Maiouma (seventh century), a kontakion and oikos, four stichera. several kathismata. and four aposticha. None of these possesses either the originality or the power of Kassiane's hymn. In none is the Lenten drama of metanoia more strikingly portrayed than in this hymn written by one woman about another.

Tradition and medieval manuscripts both attribute the troparion Κυριε, η εν πολλαις αμαρτιαις to Kassiane, the Constantinopolitan, hymn-writing nun of the ninth century. It bears the imprint of her poetic talent and profound religious faith. This troparion possesses both beauty and richness of meaning. One scholar/critic appreciated "The way in which dramatic and narrative elements are blended, and the final prayer, wherein the need of one sinner is absorbed into the cry of a whole suffering world…"18

The language of the troparion is a mosaic composed of words, phrase, and echoes from the Scriptures, especially the Psalter. Imagery minted by Kassiane unfolds the psychological inner world of the Sinful Woman at a moment of crisis. The hymn is concentrated, intense and brief, consisting of a little more than one hundred words. Yet the Byzantine nun-hymnographer portrays in it universal human emotions, the fundamental Christian drama of sin and salvation.

The structure and style of Kassiane's troparion are influenced by the seven Penitential Psalms (6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, 142), three of which (37, 50, 142) are chanted during the Orthros of Holy Wednesday. Like these Psalms, the troparion is addressed to God, praises His mercy and contains confession and prayer. Kassiane, however, was no mere imitator of the Psalmist. Her troparion is more complex in structure, more subtle in its psychology and more dynamic in movement. Hers is a new song, a distantly Byzantine Lenten psalm, inspired by the prose of Saint Luke.

Kassiane's celebrated troparion consists of a single strophe in which two different voices are heard. First, the sacred poet herself speaks in a brief introduction. Then in the longer dramatic portion we hear the voice of the Sinful Woman disclosing the pathos of her life, the change from harmartia (sin) to soteria (salvation).

Following the pattern of Psalms, this Byzantine psalm begins by invoking God with a single word, Kyrie. Addressing the Lord, the sacred poet presents her hymn to Him. At the same time she summarizes the story first told by St. Luke, all the while subtly refining and deepening it.

With a long dignified phrase Kassiane the Nun introduces her subject: εν πολλαις αμαρτιαις περιπεσουσα γυνη (the woman who had fallen into many sins). More delicate and less cruel than the hymnographers who insisted on calling the sinner a πορνη. Kassiane, nevertheless, vividly describes the woman's utter degradation.