The oldest-surviving Christian hymns designed exclusively for Holy Week are a set known as the Idiomele. In the modern Orthodox Church, they are sung during the Royal Hours service of Good Friday morning (the final hymn is sung during two additional services). Apart from their antiquity, the most noteworthy feature of these hymns is that they were the first to blame “the Jews” for the death of Christ. Not only is this accusation historically misleading, it constituted a dramatic break from earlier hymns that reflected on the crucifixion. Based on recent historical research, we are now able to link the introduction of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Idiomele to precise events in Palestine at the time of their composition. This historical evidence further accentuates our need to address the theological incoherence of the anti-Jewish rhetoric of these hymns and others composed in later centuries.
The Idiomele may be the oldest Holy Week hymns but they were not the first to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Approximately one thousand hymns emphasizing those very themes predate the Idiomele. Those earlier hymns were composed for an eight-week cycle of Sunday services, known as the Octoechos, and survive in a text known as the Jerusalem Georgian Chantbook. While a few of those hymns do contain negative statements about the Jews, on balance they consistently position the whole of humanity as responsible for the death of Christ, precisely because Christ’s death and resurrection save the whole of humanity from death. In other words, our earliest evidence of Christian Liturgy instructs us that, week after week, Christians sang of themselves as the ones most responsible for the death of Christ. It is both historically and theologically significant that the earliest Christians in Jerusalem did not assign blame for the death of Jesus outside of their own community.
Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is still uncoiling, but the destruction he is inflicting on the people of Ukraine has already succeeded in uniting the fractious Orthodox churches in Ukraine around defense of their homeland. He has also ensured that the Patriarchate of Moscow—so closely aligned with Vladimir Putin—has no future in Ukraine, whatever its canonical claims. The Orthodox Church is devoted to preserving good order and canonical tradition, but there are times when canons must yield to reality, and in Ukraine, it should have been obvious decades ago that Moscow’s ecclesiastical oversight of Ukraine was impossible. Certainly after 2014 with Putin’s annexation of Crimea, his carving out of Donbas, and his war of occupation that left 14,000 Ukrainians dead in eight years. This was a glaring pastoral reality that Patriarch Bartholomew recognized in granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2018 despite canonical controversy. Now, among the Orthodox churches in Ukraine faced with uniting against Moscow’s monstrous war, there is already talk of a union council. And maybe the rest of the Orthodox world will eventually catch up and see the pastoral wisdom of Patriarch Bartholomew’s action.
Here, the history of the Church of England during the American Revolution in 1775-1783 offers some valuable lessons. As David L. Holmes wrote in an important article on which this essay is based:
Technically speaking, the Anglican Church in America was an innocent bystander in the American Revolution. But since it lived in the neighborhood of one of the participants and was intimately related to the other, it emerged with a terrible beating. The war raised questions of patriotism, of loyalty, and of the obligations of Christians at a time of war…
(David L. Holmes, “The Episcopal Church and the American Revolution,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 47, No. 3 (September, 1978), pp. 261-291, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42973625, 261.)
It seems to me, we live in Kassiani times. Holy Week is approaching and with it the singing of the sticheron on the sinful woman, followed shortly by the Holy Saturday kanon, which is at least partly by the same poet. But not only that: just a couple of years ago, the English singer-songwriter Frank Turner wrote a song about Kassiani and her unfulfilled love affair with Emperor Theophilos. The TV series Vikings features the same poetic saint as a beautiful Byzantine seductress engaged in a secret romance with Amir Ziyadat Allah. She has entered twenty-first-century pop culture, cast as an object of modern hopes and fantasies. And an even more recent event: a few days ago, Cappella Romana released a full CD with Hymns of Kassiani. These are indeed Kassiani times. Or maybe instead of “Kassiani” we should say “Kassia,” which was her historical name? In fact, that is really what I want to ponder in this brief essay, in this time of the beautiful composer’s comeback on the world stage: what do we call her?
Frank Turner begins his song by letting her introduce herself: “I’ve heard that they call me the woman who has fallen into many sins…” He draws on a long line of more of less legendary traditions that are spun around her life. There is love and unreciprocated love. Kassia was still in love with Theophilos after the renowned bride show, longing for him despite her life as a nun, but, as Wikipedia and many online sources will tells us, “She did not want to let her old passion overcome her monastic vow.” She decided not to act on her erotic fantasies and her deep yearning. Kassia is one of relatively few saints—mostly women—who are explicitly associated with sex and lust. Not bad for a nun! But there is something about the balance. Whose is her passion? I think she must be gravitating toward the Mary Magdalene complex.
If one were to put all my essays having to do with Origen in a single document, it would be about two hundred pages of material. I also did multiple (AFR) podcast episodes on Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian’s Philocalia of Origen, which totals almost five hours. On July 14, 2020, I was interviewed for an hour on Fr. Tom Soroka’s AFR podcast Ancient Faith Today Live to discuss the life of Origen. Surely some will be asking themselves, “Why would anyone dedicate so much time and effort talking about a condemned heretic?” This question reveals an ecclesiastical philosophy among a portion of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This philosophy of pious ignorance presupposes that to be truly Orthodox is to be zealously hostile and excessively uncharitable concerning pretty much any controversial figure of antiquity. However, it takes two to create controversy. Too often do we label the other as “controversial,” ignoring how such actions are designed to fulfill the very accusation.