One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee's house, bought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." And Jesus answering said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And he answered, "What is it, Teacher?" " A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more? And he said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, " Who is this, who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Luke 7:36-50)
The extraordinary hymn of Kassia, sung at the matins of Holy Wednesday, is based on the above Gospel account of the sinful woman. As Jesus is dining at the house of Simon, a Pharisee, the sinful woman enters the house and begins anointing his feet with myrrh and tears and wiping them with her hair. This event, as recounted by Luke, takes place at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, although its commemoration has been placed during the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week because of its symbolic interpretation as a preparation for his burial.
We actually know very little about the life of this woman, other than the fact that because of her sullied reputation, she was easily recognized and despised by the locals. Yet, even though in the Gospel account she did not speak with words, her reputation, her actions, and the responses of both Simon and Jesus tell us something profound about the power of repentance as an essential prerequisite to the ability to love with divine love.
In numerous other stichera for the matins of Holy Wednesday2, the sinful woman is referred to as a harlot. While this is not made explicit in the Gospel account, it does seem that she at least had a reputation as such, whether or not she actually was engaged in the profession. Simply appearing in public without due modesty (e.g. without head covering or without male escort) could have gained her a reputation as a loose woman. Yet something about the intensity of her contrition points to a deeper, more immediate desire to change her life.
Prostitution may indeed be the oldest profession, but it is certainly not one which most (if any) women take up willingly, but rather out of necessity, either real or perceived. If this woman had no husband or living male relatives, she literally would have been on her own. We do not know if she had any children or other relatives to support. What we do know is that she did not want to continue to live as she had been.
She was already on the road to repentance before she entered the house of Simon. She knew that Jesus would be dining there and bought, especially for the occasion, a jar of ointment, possibly to anoint the head of the guest. Her desire to change brought her to the house, but once she entered she dared not approach him directly, but in humility stood behind him and anointed not his head, but his feet. She anointed them with myrrh and with her own tears and wiped them with her hair, immodestly displayed. If her reputation was correctly based on her abuse of her sexuality, then it was essential to her repentance that her act of contrition be a most sensual one - she touched him with her hands and her hair and kissed him and let her tears fall on his feet and mingle with the myrrh. She was in need of healing, both soul and body. Her sensuality and sexuality needed to be healed by the transformative power of genuine repentance and divine forgiveness.
In contrast, Simon, we assume, led a life that, outwardly at least, was exemplary. He showed hospitality by inviting Jesus and the other guests to eat with him at his house. He displayed a certain amount of open-mindedness by inviting Jesus not only to dine with them, but probably also to discuss the law. Additionally Simon was probably curious about this young man whom he thought might be a prophet. Yet his hospitality was not complete. He did not greet him with a kiss nor did he offer him water to wash his feet. He doubted that Jesus was even a prophet since he allowed a woman to touch him whom everyone knew to be a great sinner.
Simon did not look beyond the surface of the event he saw before him. There was no self-reflection, no humility, no compassion. He remained outside of himself and condemned not only the woman but Jesus as well because he was not able to recognize her for the sinner that she was.
Jesus responds to Simon's lack of compassion by telling the parable of the debtors. One owes much and is forgiven much and is able to love much while the other owes little, is forgiven little and is only able to love little. At first glance it seems that Jesus was simply saying that the woman had many sins and therefore would be forgiven much, while Simon, whose sins were few, was not able to show the same amount of love because he had only been forgiven little.
But on closer examination, it would seem that Jesus was not saying that the woman had many sins and that Simon had few, but rather that she was able to recognize and acknowledge her many sins and because she had the desire to change she was forgiven and was filled with great love. Simon, on the other hand, neither recognized nor acknowledged his own sinfulness and therefore had no desire to change. Without repentance there is no forgiveness, and because Simon was forgiven little, he was only able to love little.
In the hymn of Kassia, the focus remained on the sinful woman and no mention was made of Simon. Kassia beautifully gave voice to the woman who did not speak in Luke's account. The woman not only acknowledged her sins, but took responsibility for them as well. Because she approached in repentance, she was able to perceive the divinity of the Incarnate God, and was likened to the myrrh-bearing women who came to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus.
She found the divine image in herself through repentance and offered her fountain of tears and the sighing of her heart as gifts to the one who "gathered the waters of the sea into clouds" and who "bowed the heavens in [His] ineffable condescension." Kassia contrasts the repentance of the sinful woman with Eve who heard God's "footstep in paradise in the cool of the day, and in fear she ran and hid herself." Not only did the sinful woman not hide, but she approached him in order to "tenderly embrace those pure feet and wipe them with the hair of [her] head." She recognized the extent of her sinfulness but with a confidence born out of love knew that the mercy and compassion of God were greater than her sins.
The sinful woman came to the point where she knew that she could not go on living life the way she had and this desire to change her life led her to seek out Jesus. But it was not until she encountered the Incarnate God that she was able to shed genuine tears of repentance. This woman came to know not only that her situation in life had to change, but also her very being. It was this more perfect repentance that allowed her to be healed and to love with a transformed love that was no longer destructive but life-giving.
For Further Reflection:
Catafygiotu Topping, Eva, "Kassiane the Nun and the Sinful Woman," in Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy: Women and the Church. Minneapolis, Minn.: Light and Life Publishing Co., 1987, pp. 30-38.
Romanos the Melodist, "On the Sinful Woman," Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine Melodist I: On the Person of Christ. Translated and annotated by Marjorie Carpenter. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1970.
Touliatos-Banker, "Kassia," in Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Edited by James R. Briscoe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
_______, "Medieval Women Composers in Byzantium and the West," Musica Antiqua, Belgium vol. 6 (1982), pp. 687-712.
_______, "The Traditional Role of Greek Women in Music from Antiquity to the End of the Byzantine Empire," in Rediscovering the Muses: Women's Musical Traditions. Ed. by Kimberly Marshall. Boston: Northeastern University, 1993, pp. 111-123.
_______, "Women Composers of Medieval Byzantine Chant," in College Music Symposium 24:1 (1984), pp. 62-80.
"The Apostikha - Holy Wednesday, GNE tone 8, Obikhod, N. Bakhmetev," in Holy Week - Volume 1. Arranged and edited by David Drillock, Helen Breslich Erickson, John H. Erickson, Elizabeth Dresko, Mary Ann Sporcic. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1980.
"The Hymn of the Repentant Sinful Woman (Known as the Doxastikon by Kassiani the Nun)," in Great and Holy Week, Vol. I. Transcriptions and settings by Basil Kazan and Raymond George. Englewood, NJ: Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, 1979.
Kassia, "The Fallen Woman, Mode IV Plagal," Transcription from Athens MS.883, f. 261v by D. Touliatos-Banker in Historical Anthology of Music by Women, edited by James R. Briscoe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
"The Troparion of Cassiane, Plagal of Fourth Tone," in Selected Byzantine Hymns According to the Tradition of the Great Church of Christ Including Troparia taken from Vespers, Great Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha. Transcribed from the Chrysanthine Byzantine Notation. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1986.