On the Hymn of Kassiani


Sermon preached by Linda Arnold at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA on Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Hymn of Kassiani, composed by one of the world’s most renowned Byzantine poets, is chanted once a year during Matins on Great and Holy Wednesday which is traditionally served on Tuesday evening in anticipation. It is worth noting that this female author created the chords and universal story of this domain of the human heart, during a time when most women were discriminated against singing or writing in the church in Constantinople.  During the Matins service, her story of sin, followed by repentance and healing is compared to Judas’ betrayal and despair.     Who is this sinful woman who laments her sins, recognizes the Lord, worships Him and beseeches him with her voice, “Do not disregard me, you whose mercy is boundless!” In the Biblical record she remains unnamed.  However she could be me, she could be you; she could be all who have a heart, the natural place of encounter between God and His creation.  As Abba Pambo states,  “If you have a heart, you can be saved.” 

The sinful woman declares, “I shall kiss thine immaculate feet and wipe them with the tresses of my head… Who shall examine the magnitude of my sin and the depths of thy judgment? “ Kassiani is telling her story.  We all share this story and yet we each have unique and personal details to the story.  What does Christ invite her and invite us to do with our stories?  Christ is curious about her and about us and gently asks us questions that can create peace within.  Brene Brown, PhD. LMSW contemporary author of the book, Rising Strong, writes, like the church Fathers about the work of the heart.  She says, “stories take place in the hearts of all persons in all times.”  Just as Christ abides in our hearts and the kingdom is within our hearts, Brown compels us to enter into our hearts and engage in three steps around our stories.  (Our stories are our lives with all our sins, all our hurts, all our vulnerabilities from what has been said or done to us as well as what we have said or done to others, Our stories are our real selves, not the selves we try so hard to present.)   She calls these three steps The Reckoning, The Rumble, and The Revolution.  Can’t you just picture it?  Haven’t we all felt it?  We get a glimpse of our sinfulness, and our woundedness, just like the woman in the Kassiani Hymn.  We can choose to be willing to wrestle with our emotions.  She did!  “Woe is me, sin has given me a dark and lightless night.”  We can be curious as to the thoughts and actions that feed our feelings.  She was! “I will kiss Thy feet whose tread when it fell on the ears of Eve in paradise dismayed her so that she did hide herself because of fear.  Who then shall examine the multitude of my sin and the depth of Thy judgment?”

Then we can rumble.  We can choose to revisit our stories, those we have developed and enter deeper and come face to face with our shame, our fears, the blame, the resentment, the heartbreak and (now listen) the generosity and the forgiveness.  Brown gives us the two inseparable components that are always present in Christ, by including these words, generosity and forgiveness.  For in the heart, the sinful woman encountered generosity and forgiveness in the person of Christ.  As Brown states “it is in this meeting that we can come to better understand who we are and how we engage with others.” 

The final step she calls Revolution:  Isn’t that a synonym for repentance? Repentance means metanoia, a turning back or reorienting of ourselves.   Revolution allows us to change our thoughts and beliefs.  With the sinful woman we can see our sins, acknowledge our hurts and wounds, own our stories, take responsibility and ask for the mercy, healing and forgiveness from the one who is within us always, the Risen Christ. We can reorient our lives,change our patterns of behavior or interaction with others.

The woman in the Kassiani hymn was ever so brave.  She came to Christ and became utterly vulnerable.  She struggled, she wept.  Our stories make us vulnerable; cause us to struggle and sometimes to weep.  There is such good news about this process isn’t there?  What comes next?  Christ, whose light is within each and every heart, is already there, there to meet us, exposed and vulnerable and real.  He wants to meet us this way and loves us unconditionally this way.  He humbled himself unto His voluntary death on the cross because He wants us, we are the beloved; Not all tidy and cleaned up, but messy and weeping and confessing and then repenting which give rise to change.  We get up; we move on, we keep going, wrapped in the forgiveness and love of our Risen Christ.

Why does the church go to such great lengths to fill our worship with hymns, with stories that fill our senses?  As Neuroeconomist Pal Zak has found “hearing a story, a narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin.  These chemicals trigger the uniquely human ability to connect, empathize and make meaning.  Story is literally in our DNA. “

As we participate in the hymns of Holy Week, we surpass time and space as we sing the stories and kiss the icons and pray the prayers.  Sharing a quote from an analysis of the Hymn originally written in Greek and translated in April of 2002:  These stories penetrate and live in our hearts and I quote “where the human soul moves between two extremes: “A dark and moonless love of sin and the eternity of salvation brought to mankind by the God-man.  He condescended to bend the heavens to take the human soul out of darkness, which drives it to madness. “   I can attest to this “madness.” As I share this example.    Have you ever like me, had sleepless nights where at first a thought races across your mind and then more come to keep it company and they begin to take root in the heart?  When this happens to me and I toss and turn in what seems like an endless night and I become filled with worry, anxiety and stress, Father Antony has lovingly counseled me to not fight with these parts.  Rather I can welcome them as friends and reassure these parts that they will be taken care of with compassion.   Is this not Brown’s rumble?  Is this not where we meet ourselves?  And in doing so, do we not encounter God?  Father Calivas says, “From the start, in this soul, in which sin has made its home, the dazzling light of the Lord slipped in.”   Rumi put it this way.  “ The wound is the place where the light enters you.”    We must be curious and compassionate.  We must work together with our creator, engage in what the church calls synergy, to reconstruct ourselves and not attempt to banish our passions but rather cooperating with Christ transform them and temper them with love.

Can we dare to be heroic like this woman in this beautiful hymn? How did this woman who had fallen into many sins, know that He who was a guest in the home of Simon was God?  She was illumined by divine grace and she responded.   Through her repentance, she perceived the divinity of Christ. 

The Scriptures tell us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and cast all our anxieties upon Him.  Tonight at Forgiveness Vespers we have an opportunity to humble ourselves before each other and ask for and receive forgiveness as well as be asked for and give forgiveness in return.  What could be more powerful?  In Ephesians 4:32 we read,  “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Each of us is part of something vast and as large as the cosmos.  Our actions and inactions affect more than we see and know.  Our words and silences penetrate further and deeper than we are aware.  These are our stories.    Let’s share them tonight with the simple yet profound act of giving and receiving forgiveness from those we know and those we may not know.  We are all in this journey together and after all as Rumi says, “ We are all just walking each other home.”  Let’s walk together this Lent and let’s open our wounded hearts like the sinful woman in the Kassiani Hymn and receive healing from the Risen Christ.