Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Kassiane the Nun and the Sinful Woman

A second phrase, την σην αισθομενη θεοτητα (recognizing Your divinity), further describes an important facet of the sinner's personality. The Sinful Woman is unusually perceptive and intuitive. In contrast to Simon who doubted that Jesus was a true prophet, the woman had perceived God in His person. Burdened though she was by her multiple sins, the irony is that the social outcast alone had recognized God and responded to His presence in Simon's house.

A third phrase advances and refines still further Kassiane's version of the traditional story of the Sinful Woman. By means of three words, μυροφορου αναλαβουσα ταξι, the nun elevates the sinner to sanctity. By perceiving God and honoring Him, the Sinful Woman joined the holy ranks of myrrh-bearers, Christ's faithful women followers, who carried spices to anoint His body in the tomb and were the first to learn that He had risen from the dead.19 Thus, in Kassiane's interpretation of Saint Luke's story, the Sinful Woman becomes a saint and the first myrrhophoros. With her feminine insights and sympathies the Byzantine nun-hymnographer enriches an old familiar story. Thanks to Kassiane the Nun it acquires new dimensions of spiritual significance.

After this brief yet suggestive introduction, the second voice enters the troparion. From the lips of the Sinful Woman herself we hear her confession and prayer. In the inspired poetry of the Byzantine nun, the speechless woman of Saint Luke unburdens her soul in search for redemption. Kassiane translates the sinner's tears into passionate words. Through the device of the dramatic monologue the hymn becomes a poem of experience, enabling us to share the Sinful Woman's progress from sin to grace.

A piercing cry of despair is the Sinful Woman's first word. Οιμοι introduces a high pitch of emotion and intensity into the troparion. While the tragic pain-filled cry still rings, the sinner begins her confession. As all penitential prayers require, it begins with a confession of guilt. With a cascade of sharp, dark images she describes her spiritual desolation:

στι νυξ με συνεχει
οιστρος ακολασιας
ζοφωδης τε και ασεληνος
ερως της αμαρτιας
For night holds me in its grip
the goad of lust.
murky and moonless
the love of sin

The Sinful Woman admits responsibility for her transgressions, for her failure to control her passions. This passionate and unconditional confession is unmatched either in the Triodion or in the Psalter.

By her confession the Sinful Woman begins to emerge from the "moonless night" of her sins. She now pleads for God's mercy and pardon. Her tensions and anguish reduced, she speaks more calmly. Her three petitions mark the three stages of her Lenten journey of metanoia the "turning around" from darkness to light.

In the first petition the sinner invokes God, the Lord of nature who empties the clouds to fill the seas. To Him the Sinful Woman offers her tears, the outward visible sign of repentance. To symbolize the chasm which separates the sinful creature from the Creator, Kassiane draws a contrast between human tears and the vastness of the clouds and seas. Lesser hymnographers contented themselves with stock references to the "harlot's tears."

In the second petition the Sinful Woman moves inward from the visible and physical, to the invisible and spiritual. She asks God to "bend" toward her sorrowing heart. Instead of addressing God in terms of grandeur, transcendence and power, she appeals to God in terms of His humility and compassion, bending heaven to earth when He became human. Because Christ reconciled humanity and God, the Creator is no longer distant and beyond approach. Christ brought God to the Sinful Woman.

Confession, tears and prayer to a merciful God begin to heal the Sinful Woman to liberate her from her sin-filled past. Looking now to the future, she gratefully promises Christ to kiss His feet again and to dry them with her hair. Divine love has erased the "moonless night" of guilt and sin.

At this point Kassiane's Sinful Woman recalls Eve, the first woman who sinned. Her allusion to the episode related in Genesis 3.8-11 implies a contrast between the Sinful Woman and Eve. After Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, they fled and hid at the sound of God's footsteps. Eve had run from God, the Sinful Woman to Him. Her trust had vanquished all fear.

Far from being a 'pedantic' intrusion in Kassiane's penitential troparion, Eve's appearance is natural, even inevitable.20 Early in the Christian era, Eve, not Adam, had been settled upon as the principal first sinner. Henceforth in sermons and hymns all women, good and bad alike, were destined to be tainted with the guilt of their first mother.21 From this taint only the Theotokos was exempt. Therefore, it is not surprising that the story of one sinful woman should suggest that of another, in this case the archetypal sinful woman. Eve and the repentant harlot appear together in many Lenten sermons and hymns, the disobedience of the first to be avoided, the metanoia of the second to be imitated.22