Who Are You When You Feel Liturgically?

by Andrew Mellas

Sinful woman at Jesus' feet

What is emotion? Do emotions have a history? Who has emotion? Are emotions innate? These questions are far more complex than they might seem. Indeed, in recent years, scholars have explored how emotions were understood and enacted throughout history, investigated how emotional discourses acted as drivers of cultural and political change, and probed the performativity of emotions. More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has shown how a desire for justice can mobilize an emotional community that transcends borders. This essay begins to canvass the notion of liturgical emotions. For the faithful who encountered the mystery of God in the liturgical world of Byzantium, and for believers today, could human emotions become divine emotions? Not unlike how the sensuality of holy ritual invites the faithful to gaze into divine beauty, the performance of hymns leads the faithful to the true realm of emotions in the soul’s ever-intensifying desire for Christ. If through the ritual of liturgy, the faithful could inhabit the mythic universe of hymnography, become protagonists in its biblical (and apocryphal­) stories and find their place in the sacred drama of salvation, then it was in this affective mystagogy that human emotion could be transformed into divine emotion.

Emotions are not necessarily evil distortions of human nature; they could be good or bad depending on their use.[1] This conception of human feeling is based on a patristic view of Christ’s emotions. Cyril of Alexandria did not ascribe Christ’s emotions to his human nature. When Jesus wept before the tomb of Lazarus, his “holy flesh” inclined to tears but in such a way that the “ever undisturbed and calm” divinity ensured the grief was not excessive and “taught [the flesh] to feel things beyond its nature” (Commentary on the Gospel of John 7, on John 11:33. PG 74, 53A). The question of the Logos’ emotions was a soteriological one:

Moreover, just as death was brought to naught in no other way than by the death of the Saviour, so also with regard to each of the emotions of his flesh. For unless Christ had felt cowardice, human nature could not be freed from cowardice; unless He had experienced grief there would never have been any deliverance from grief; unless He had been troubled and alarmed, no escape from these feelings could have been found.[4] 

Commentary on the Gospel of John 8, on John 12:27. PG 74, 92D.

Christ’s emotions were ascribed to the one incarnate Logos. Similarly, the emotions of the human person are another instance of how God formed human nature as the midpoint between the earthly and the divine. Every emotion, when “exalted by the loftiness of mind”, can be “conformed to the beauty of the divine image” (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Formation of the Human Being. PG 44, 193C).

During the liturgical performance of hymns, sacred music and holy ritual sought to destabilize Christian personhood, inviting the faithful to contemplate the biblical narrative the hymn evoked and identify with the protagonist of the story. Examples abound in the kontakia of Romanos the Melodist and the Great Kanon by Andrew of Crete, but let us briefly look at Kassia’s hymn On the Sinful Woman[2] and how her protagonist’s emergence from sinfulness is enacted through tears, compunction and repentance. Kassia gives the sinful woman a voice and unveils her interiority. However, even after guiding the faithful through the repentance of the woman who had fallen into many sins, Kassia leaves the question of her identity unresolved. The hymn also obscures the woman’s harlotry by employing oblique references to the darkness of her eroticism.

The confession of the protagonist, her desire to experience the mercy of her “soul-saving Saviour” and her petition not to be cast aside, leads the faithful to the same crossroads of repentance and hope. The singer takes on the role of Kassia’s protagonist, who becomes a paradigm of compunction. Tears trace a pathway to the divine, mediating the liminal space between the protagonist and the faithful. Not unlike how the earthly and heavenly realms were portrayed as converging in the mystagogy of liturgy, tears of compunction could emerge in the liminality of sacred space, amidst the liturgical world of hymnody, suspended between paradisal nostalgia and the eschaton.

Kassia’s hymn became a collective space of liturgical action that sought to draw in the faithful who yearned to experience the sacred drama that unfolded during Holy Week. The congregation could follow the footsteps of and identify with the woman who had fallen into many sins as she journeyed toward repentance. In entering this sacred narrative, they did not remain in one point of time but traveled with Christ to the exile of Adam and Eve from Eden and then to his crucifixion, death and resurrection. The passage of time collapsed into different moments in the history of salvation, placing the believer at the center of a cosmic drama and generating a sense of helplessness. 

The mystical and theological dimensions of liturgical feeling have fascinating implications for the history of emotions in Byzantium, disrupting the modern stalemate between arguments for emotions as either biological, therefore universal, and emotions as socially constructed. Feeling liturgically entailed participation in the mystery and otherness of the Divine. As members of Christ’s body, as an emotional and liturgical community that was taught to feel things beyond its nature, the faithful were invited by hymnody to experience the godly feelings of its protagonists. These emotions were constructed within a liturgical event, in the affective mystagogy of hymnody and ritual. While the social and cultural milieu where these emotions emerged cannot be discounted, liturgical emotions became a prism through which the faithful might have seen their world and made judgments in the course of everyday life. Liturgical emotions are, in some respects, transhistorical and transcultural phenomena. 


[1] See Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “The Meaning of ‘Pathos’ in Abba Isaias and Theodoret of Cyrus,” Studia Patristica 20 (1989): 315–22; Paul Blowers, “Hope for the Passible Self: The Use and Transformation of the Human Passions in the Fathers of the Philokalia,” in The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality, ed. Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 216–29.

[2] The text of this hymn for Holy Wednesday (“O Lord, the woman fallen into many sins…”) can be found in modern editions of the Triodion and appears in early manuscripts of this hymnal: Sinai Graecus 734–735, fol. 159r–v; Vaticanus Graecus 771, fol. 162v; Grottaferrata Δβ I, fol. 161r.


Andrew Mellas is a Senior Lecturer in Byzantine History and Liturgical Studies at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College. He has just published Liturgy and the Emotions in Byzantium: Compunction and Hymnody (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

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.