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:
While our recent celebration of the birth of the Christ Child continues and mingles now with hints of the Great Lent to come, it is no secret that profound and complex challenges confront us every day in this Pandemic time. As pastors and teachers and facilitators on the front line of Christian service, we often find ourselves discerning the issues confounding our society with painfully compelling insight. Yet, in the midst of all this chaos and suffering, the Church has kept us spiritually safe, with the assurance of God’s lovingkindness and presence among us.
As we navigate facets of our Pandemic experience, then, our efforts to understand and to help one another heal surely inspire us to offer grateful and repentant prayer for the mercy of God. Is it not the assurance of the presence of God in this time of Pandemic which has fashioned for us a kind of “Ark of Safety” where we are abiding together until the virus trouble passes, each family within the protection of quarantine and, in the tender mercy of our God present among us, are we not endeavoring, like those couples sequestered in the Ancient of Days, to live together in careful peace and harmony during this critical time?
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
Jesus may have prayed about several of the things that worry us today: the feeling that the world has been overrun by elements of evil can be overwhelming. So, it is good to remember that Jesus sustained himself by withdrawing to pray alone, often in the wilderness. And many were inspired to follow him there, particularly in the early centuries of Christianity.
While most of these Early Christian desert elders were men praying to God in the rough terrain of the hills outside of Palestinian villages and above the Nile, there were women as well who withdrew into the desert, seeking to truly live out the command of Christ. They, too, have left us a treasury of spiritual wisdom in their short sayings—apophthegmata—similar in form to the earliest remembered sayings of Jesus. Even within the Greek collection, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, (Apophthegmata Patrum), there are a trio of women elders remembered for their God-loving teaching.
The advice and exhortation of the Desert Mothers make them excellent spiritual guides in today’s troubling world. Their admirable inner stillness can be a helpful role model in conflicted times. In personal sessions between spiritual elder and disciple, they taught their followers to imitate Christ and to face off temptation, often leaving them with a Saying meant to personally guide their prayer throughout the day, uphold their courage, and inspire the spiritual warrior within each one of them to serve the highest good in the world.
It is a privilege to share the Dormition of the Theotokos with you,* especially since the Orthodox manner of regarding the Virgin Mary is in some ways, as on this happy feast-day, perhaps more evolved than in my own church. Mary is so deeply embedded in Orthodox devotion that she is praised in the Divine Liturgy as “more honored than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim;” she is venerated as “the Holy Theotokos, most blessed and glorious Mother of God and Blessed Virgin Mary.” In the experience of the Church Year, the Summer fast for Dormition of the Theotokos in these past weeks is one of the four great fasts of the year—and the Feast itself is at once mystical, eschatological, even Paschal in nature.
The Dormition Gospel from St. Luke demonstrates how Mary’s life has become for us an important keystone in God’s Salvation history. For in contemplating the Virgin Mary, “the first of the faithful,” through the lens of the Martha and Mary story (Luke 10:38-42), we receive resolution to the tension which always presents itself between the two ways—the archetypal way of Martha and the archetypal way of Mary. Yet, rather than choosing which one is right and which one is wrong, in Mary the Mother of Jesus we see revealed the embodiment of both: on the one hand authoritative and outspoken action in faith, such as her handling of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), and on the other hand, serene prayerful stillness, such as the Shepherds saw at the Nativity, when Mary treasured all these things “and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).