Today I am reposting the song and story of Kassiani, the Byzantine composer, poet, and hymnographer, who is not well-known to western feminists or in western history in general. In Christian Orthodox tradition, Kassiani’s most famous song will be sung this week on Easter Tuesday night or very early Easter Wednesday morning, placing a woman’s love for Jesus at the heart of the Easter drama.
For many this song is the high point of Easter week.
Kassiani, also known as St. Kassia, was a Greek woman born into a wealthy family in Constantinople (now Istanbul) about 805 to 810 AD. According to three historians of the time, she was intelligent and beautiful and selected as a potential bride for the Emperor Theophilos. The chroniclers state that the Theophilos approached her and said: “Through woman, the worst,” referring to the sin of Eve. Clever Kassiani responded, “Through woman, the best,” referring to the birth of the Savior through Mary.
Apparently unable to accept being put in his place by a woman, Theophilos chose another bride. Perhaps relieved, Kassiani founded a monastery in Constantinople becoming its first abbess. She was an outspoken theological advocate of icons during the iconoclastic crisis (for which she was flogged). One of only two women to publish under her own name during the Byzantine Middle Ages, Kassiani wrote both poetry and hymns. Up to 50 of her hymns are known today, with 23 of them being part of the Greek Orthodox liturgy.
The Hymn of Kassiani is based on the story in Luke 7:36-50 of the woman who approached Jesus shortly before his death, washed his feet with her tears, dried her tears with her hair, and then kissed and anointed his feet with fragrant oil. Though his hosts complained to Jesus that the woman was a sinner, Jesus responded that the woman’s sins were forgiven because of her great love.
The woman in this story is sometimes understood to be the first to recognize Jesus’s impending death, because the dead are anointed with fragrant oils. Though unnamed in the synoptic gospels, in the Eastern Church this woman is understood to be Mary of Magdala, from whom Jesus had removed seven demons. In the Western Church, through conflation with yet another text, Mary of Magdala came to be known as the prostitute who loved Jesus. While recognizing her as sinner, the Eastern Church never viewed Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, and often names her as Apostle to the Apostles. Today feminists claim both the unnamed woman and Mary Magdalene as emblems of the active power of women in the early church.
Given that the story of Kassiani’s rejection by Theophilos centers both around his discomfort with her intelligence and on conflicting interpretations of woman’s role in sin and salvation, it is not a stretch to imagine Kassiani as an early feminist theologian* intent on calling attention to the role of women in the church. Her support of icons can also be seen as a feminist act given that the icons of She Who Is All Holy (the Panagia) are by far the most beloved, placing the female face of God at center of prayer and devotion.
The Hymn of Kassiani is now part of the Easter liturgical cycle focused on Jesus as the Bridegroom who redeems his Bride, the Church, represented in the hymn as the woman who had fallen into sin. Kassiani’s hymn derives its power by focusing on the immense distance between God and sinful humanity, combined with the knowledge that the woman’s deep love moves God to bridge that distance between them. In English translation, here is Kassiani’s theologically embellished retelling of Luke’s story:
The woman who had fallen into many sins recognizes Thy Godhead, O Lord. She takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer and makes ready the myrrh of mourning, before Thy entombment. Woe to me! saith she, for my night is an ecstasy of excess, gloomy and moonless, and full of sinful desire. Receive the sources of my tears, O Thou Who dost gather into clouds the water of the sea; in Thine ineffable condescension, deign to bend down Thyself to me and to the lamentations of my heart, O Thou Who didst spread out the Heavens. I will fervently embrace Thy sacred feet, and wipe them again with the tresses of the hair of my head, Thy feet at whose sound Eve hid herself for fear when she heard Thee walking in Paradise in the cool of the day. O my Saviour and soul-Saver who can trace out the multitude of my sins, and the abysses of Thy judgement? Do not disregard me Thy servant, O Thou Whose mercy is boundless.
These words are repeated over and over in a song for multiple voices that can last for ten to twenty minutes. The hymn evokes deep feelings of love and longing, loss and lamentation. Many agree that Kassiani’s Hymn is the most beautiful song of the Easter week liturgy, placing a woman at the center of the Easter drama.
It is often said that Anonymous is a woman. An exception to the rule, Kassiani, a woman who celebrated an anonymous woman, is remembered by name during Easter week. It is perhaps testimony to the importance of her work that Kassiani’s birth or name day is celebrated on September 7, one day before that of the Panagia, the Virgin Mary, on September 8.
*A view put forward by Kurt Sherry in Kassia the Nun in Context.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Lasithi, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.