In preparing to participate in the services leading to Pascha, a memorable element of the Liturgy for many of the faithful is the Hymn of St. Kassia (ca.810-ca. 865 CE), “Lord, the Woman Fallen into Many Sins.” It is remembered as a heartwarming centerpiece of the Tuesday Evening service, and sung as the Doxostikon of the Aposticha, when the Wednesday “Bridegroom Matins,” is offered. The robust popularity of the “Kassiani,” as the hymn itself is often called, may stem from its appealing melody and the opportunity it provides for the chant to be elaborated on the tune with flourishes of extemporaneous melismatic ornaments which leave worshippers spellbound. Emotional urgency simmers through the story in light of the approaching Passion of Our Lord.
Because the text cries out from the inner landscape of the woman’s soul, there is a graceful fluid commingling in it of both the Gospel women who anoint Jesus at supper, the one in Luke read at the service (7:36-50) and the one in Matthew (26:6-13) as well; and, it is the same haunting amalgamation of women used by St. Romanos in his longer metrical homily, the kontakion, “On the Harlot.” So, this is a hymn rich with paradox and parallels, and a credit to the scriptural literacy of the Orthodox listener. Like Romanos, Kassia gives voice to the woman, here praising God for the majesty of Creation:
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.
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.
This is not an essay 1) advocating sex work or 2) denying the need for repentance. This is an essay asking us to reconsider how we treat sex workers.
If there is one thing that even the most theologically illiterate can accurately remember about the life of Christ, it is that he hung around with a questionable crowd: tax collectors, zealots (the ideological equivalent of fundamentalist terrorists in 1st-century Palestine), prostitutes. This was no small thing for a pious Jewish man in 1st-century Palestine. Pious Jewish men did not spend any social time with sinners. It was among the first things that roused the Pharisees suspicions: “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them that “it is not the healthy who need a physician.” God does not come to the holy when they are ready, as most supposed in the ancient world. He comes to those who need Him wherever they are, in whatever state. It was a radical, revolutionary idea then and it still is now. Continue reading →