Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Sinful Woman in Tears at Jesus' Feet

Tonight is perhaps my favorite service in all of Holy Week. (6:30 p.m. at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis.) It's the third of the Bridegroom Orthros services. Each one has a theme, and tonight's service (which is sometimes done on Holy Wednesday morning) is about Judas, who betrayed Christ, and also about the sinful woman in tears at Jesus' feet. Their hearts and actions are contrasted in this verse:

"While the sinful woman brought oil of myrrh, the disciple came to an agreement with the transgressors. She rejoiced to pour out what was very precious, he made haste to sell the One who is above all price. She acknowledged Christ as Lord, he severed himself from the Master. She was set free, but Judas became the slave of the enemy. Grievous was his lack of love. Great was her repentance. Grant such repentance also unto me, O Savior who has suffered for our sake, and save us."

Tomorrow night we receive the Holy Oil of Unction for healing. By God's grace I was able to prepare with the sacrament of confession and with meager efforts towards fasting. I say "meager" because I fail miserably at controlling my passions, especially where food and drink are concerned. May God receive my small offering and multiply it by the prayers of the saints.

"I have transgressed more than the harlot, O loving Lord, yet never have I offered You my flowing tears. But in silence I fall down before You and with love I kiss Your most pure feet, beseeching You as Master to grant me remission of sins; and I cry to You, O Savior: Deliver me from the filth of my works."

Part of this evening's service includes what's known as "The Hymn of Kassiani." You can listen to it here. It was written by the nun, Kassiani. From Wikipedia:

"The Hymn of Kassiani is chanted only once a year during Holy Week, at the end of the aposticha at Matins on Great and Holy Wednesday, which is traditionally served in Tuesday evening. The music for the hymn is slow, sorrowful and plaintive. It requires a very wide vocal range, and is considered one of the most demanding, if not the most demanding, pieces of solo Byzantine chant, and cantors take great pride in delivering it well. The faithful make a point of going to church specifically "to listen to Kassiani" that evening:

Sensing Thy divinity, O Lord, a woman of many sins

takes it upon herself to become a myrrh-bearer,

And in deep mourning brings before Thee fragrant oil

in anticipation of Thy burial; crying:

"Woe to me! For night is unto me, oestrus of lechery,

a dark and moonless eros of sin.

Receive the wellsprings of my tears,

O Thou who gatherest the waters of the oceans into clouds.

Bend to me, to the sorrows of my heart,

O Thou who bendedst down the heavens in Thy ineffable self-emptying.

I will kiss Thine immaculate feet

and dry them with the locks of my hair;

Those very feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise

and hid herself in fear.

Who shall reckon the multitude of my sins,

or the abysses of Thy judgment, O Saviour of my soul?

Do not ignore Thy handmaiden,

O Thou whose mercy is endless."

In many places in Greece, the Bridegroom Matins service of Great Tuesday is popular with sex workers and those engaged in prostitution, who may not often be seen in church at other times of the year. They come in great numbers, in order to hear the Hymn of Kassiani, as the hymn is traditionally associated with the woman fallen in many sins."


Richard Gilbert said...

Thank you for this flowing, passionate synopsis of what appears to be a powerful and poetic ceremony.

carter said...

Grace is such a powerful thing. I taught John 6 this past Sunday. The crowds had seen Jesus' miracles of healing and followed him. He fed them with the loaves and fishes and they decided to make him king, so he withdrew across the lake to Capernaum. The crowd followed. They wanted their bellies filled; they wanted the Romans killed. They, like I am so often tempted, wanted Christ to be their kind of messiah, not who he told them he was. Christ spent his time with the social pariahs--the people with whom "nice" churches will not identify. Such a lovely song.

Anonymous said...

Yes. What struck me, when I actually began to read the Bible for myself, as an adult, was how much time Jesus spent attacking dogma and hypocrites.

carter said...

I was telling someone just the other day that I was raised in the First Presbyterian dogma of literalism, and how the more I read, it is the people in scripture who took things literally who always missed the point.

Susan Cushman said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Carter: I was thinking about your comment about taking things literally and missing the point today. Someone recently said that if you spend your time buried in guide books when you're touring another country, instead of looking around at the amazing sites, you'll miss the point. In our church, I think you can miss the point if you bury yourself in the "guide book"... the service book. It's often better to look at the icons, listen to the chanting and music and scriptures being read, and just breathe in the holiness without trying to figure it out. It's a mystery.