“Rejoice, tree of leafy branches, under which believers are sheltered … Rejoice, O wood most blessed!” Akathist to the Cross, Oikos 7
Rocking around the Christmas tree in my little Norwegian hometown, I got to thinking how the Christian world is filled with trees. Not only the spruce. Not primarily anyway. But the spruce, perhaps, evoked in me just then what I might call an arboreal clarity: trunks appear on all sides of us. As soon as the human being was created, God placed this earthborn creature among leaves and branches. The Tree of Life resided in the center of primeval reality, as the source of life force. On the other side of the Fall emerged the Tree of the Cross, bearing the fruit of Salvation. Their circuit of vivacious power is broken only by another tree, the one of knowledge, whose fruits are fatal. Every Christian knows the story. Still, we tend to forget that Christianity is really a tree religion.
Early Christians knew this story well; imagining Christ as the new Adam and Mary as the new Eve, they also envisioned the Cross to be the new Tree of Life. The Lord himself, when wandering the dirt roads of this earth, might speak in Dendric: “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” (Mark 11.14) The fig tree listened, replying by withering—or so the evangelist says. Clearly Jesus identified with greenery. He called himself a vine whose branches were disciples (John 15). And he’d search for similes adequate to describe the divine reality. How can we imagine the Kingdom, he asked rhetorically? As a seed that grows and “becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Mark 4.30–32; Matthew 13.31–32). Wings hover freely above the buds that constantly grow and burst with ecclesiastical sap.
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.
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.