Holy Arousal

by Thomas Arentzen

St Augustine once observed: “It is longing that makes the heart deep” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 40.10). As a scholar of the early Church, I am often struck by how much early Christians longed. They ached and urged and craved intensely, wanted and thirsted immensely, desired and hungered and yearned for all that was good and beautiful. Their hands longed to touch; their ears wanted to hear; and their eyes just had to see; their mouths awaited tastes as eagerly as their noses anticipated smells. Expressions of overwhelming desire reached a fevered pitch in texts written for liturgical settings; hymns in particular depicted human relationships with the divine in vivid colors. This is not to say that the poets engaged in some form of confused emotionalism; on the contrary, they wove deeply embodied affects—a starving person’s hunger or an impassioned body’s yearning for an embrace—into the fabric of their theological vocabulary. Those listening or singing along could not help but feel the waves of desire pulsating through their own hearts and embodied selves.

For Holy Wednesday, Orthodox church singers prepare to perform St Kassia’s (c. 805–860) famous troparion “On the Sinful Woman.” It is a short song based on the encounter in Luke 7.36–50 where a “woman in the city, who was a sinner” washes Christ’s feet with her tears and anoints them with perfumed oil. In the late ancient period, fragrances formed a vital part of what one might call the “toolkit of seduction.” The Gospel writer imbues the story with erotic tension, lending credence to the Pharisee’s misgivings when he witnesses a prostitute touching a godly man. It is hard to deny that the story of the “Sinful Woman” is a story of longing and sexual desire in the early Church. Kassia’s version portrays the repentant psychology of a lustful woman as she experiences remorse mixed with a passionate longing to touch the man Jesus.

Yet three hundred years before Kassia, the Christians heard a much longer and more developed version of the erotic encounter between Jesus and a harlot. St Romanos the Melodist (c. 485–560) wrote and performed kontakia in Constantinople; he was a man who, according to St Porphyrios of Kafsokalivia, “was entirely within the Grace of Christ and whatever he wrote was perfect.” Perfect or not, Romanos took a keen interest in human longing. On Holy Wednesday he exclaimed:

I would like to search the mind of the wise woman

and understand how Jesus came to shine in her,

he, the loveliest who does lovely things;

before she had laid eyes on him, the harlot desired his figure. (Romanos the Melodist, On the Harlot, 4.1–4; all trans. Thomas Arentzen & Erin Galgay Walsh)

The poet invites the congregation to come along and assume the perspective and desire of the prostitute, to see Jesus from her perspective. Romanos asks us all to identify with the love and desire she experiences for Christ. An intense erotic yearning has seized her; she longs to be with him, and she longs for his body:

[the harlot:]

“I pursue him, for he has come because of me;

I dismiss those [lovers] I once knew, for I want him so much now;

and for him to want me, I anoint with perfume and dote upon him,

I weep, I moan, and I urge him to yearn for me in return.

I turn to the desire of the one I desire

And as he wishes to be kissed, I kiss my lover; […]

I leave the old [lovers] to satisfy the new one.” (Romanos the Melodist, On the Harlot, 5.1–9)

The desirous harlot wants to anoint Jesus with scented oil, but how did she acquire this expensive and seductive perfume? Romanos asks himself. Well, she must have gone to the market. So the poet includes a scene where she arrives among the perfume sellers, with great enthusiasm:

[the harlot:]

“Give me, if you have, perfume worthy of my beloved,

he who is rightly and purely kissed,

he who has set my limbs on fire, my kidneys and my heart! […]

He is son of David, and thus good-looking;

he is Son of God and God, and thus extremely delightful. […]

Michal once caught the sight of David and fell in love;

I have not laid eyes on this son of David, but I both want and love him.” (Romanos the Melodist, On the Harlot, 9.4–6; 11.1–6)

Once when I lectured to a group of theologians on this hymn, a woman approached me afterward to question my choice of material. Her words have stayed with me: “I realize it is written by St Romanos, but why do you have to focus on this particular one?” She expressed her discomfort with the poet’s explicit language; it went against everything she had been taught regarding sex; eroticism belonged to marriage and existed for the purpose of procreation. Why draw attention to a prostitute’s physical intimacy with the body of Christ? Romanos’s showcasing of sexual desire has puzzled many, but this woman’s objection and discomfort with it puzzled me even more. For should we really allow ourselves to pick only those texts from the Church tradition that we do not find challenging? In truth, Romanos and Kassia are far from the only early Christian poets who told dramatic tales about the Sinful Woman, and this specific hymn is far from unique among Romanos’s works. Several songs stage carnal desire in an explicit, corporeal imagery. Romanos’s harlot hymn, however, ends as Jesus admonishes the critical Pharisee—and indirectly all of us:

[Christ:]

“The one you did not anoint, she rubbed with fragrances;

the one you did not wash with water, she did with tears;

the one you did not welcome with a kiss, she kisses amorously as she cries:

‘I have grasped your feet!’”  (Romanos the Melodist, On the Harlot, 15.7–10)

Romanos imagines longing for intimacy with God as a desire for corporeal love. As anyone enamored with another, she longs for his whole person, his body and soul, his intimacy and his attention. The sensual and the spiritual are deeply intertwined and almost collapse into each other, so that the one is entirely inseparable from the other. This is no allegory. It is incarnation.

“On the Harlot” by Romanos exemplify how early Christian poets spoke in the idiom of longing. When Cardinal Jean B. Pitra started publishing editions of hymns by Romanos and other Greek hymnographers 150 years ago, he commented (regarding one of the other hymns) that he could not fathom how it was even conceivable that the Orthodox Constantinopolitans could sing such a sexually charged song during Holy Week. And here Pitra speaks for a wider modernity. We live in a historical moment when we as Church only with a certain unease assign language to our embodied experiences, not knowing exactly how to interpret ourselves. We may even think this unease is part of being “traditionalists.” Perhaps it is worth returning to the golden age of the Fathers, when erotic desire and other forms of corporeal longing permeated the Christian language and made, as Augustine noted, hearts swell, echoing depths of desire?


Thomas Arentzen is Fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. He is also Reader in Church History from Lund University and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oslo. 

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.