The woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving Your Divinity, O Lord, assumes the role of a myrrh-bearer; and lamenting, she brings the myrrh before your burial. “Woe to me!” she said; “For me, night is an ecstacy of excess, dark and moonless, and full of sinful desire. Receive the sources of my tears, You, Who gathers into clouds the water of the sea. Incline the groanings of my heart, You, Who in Your ineffable condescension, bowed down the Heavens.
“I will embrace and kiss Your sacred Feet, and wipe them again with the tresses of the hair of my head. Your Feet, at whose sound Eve hid herself in fear, when she heard Your footsteps while You were walking in Paradise in the twilight. O my Saviour and soul-Saver! Who can ever track down the multitude of my sins, and the depths of Your judgment? Do not disregard me Your servant, You, Whose mercy is boundless.”
~ Hymn of Kassiani, from the Holy Wednesday Bridegroom Matins
The hymn above is one of the finest in the Byzantine tradition. It is written by the nun Kassiani, a saint of the ninth century. On Holy Wednesday we commemorate the woman from the Gospel who comes to Christ and weeps at his feet. This hymn midrashicly takes up the woman’s perspective in a beautiful display of repentance.
The story can be found in the Gospel of Luke:
Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”
And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
So he said, “Teacher, say it.”
“There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”
Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”
And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”
Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” (Luke 7:38-50)
The woman is remembered for her act of faith. She goes to Christ and pours out expensive oil on his feet, weeps, and wipes his feet with her hair, kissing them.
St. Kassiani takes up the woman’s perspective and elaborates: she is like a myrrh-bearer who is preparing Christ for his burial. Indeed, this is precisely how Christ himself describes a similar incident with St. Mary Magdalene (John 12:1-8). “Let her alone,” he says, “she has kept this for the day of My burial.”
In the hymn, the woman goes on to describe her life: “For me, night is an ecstacy of excess, dark and moonless, and full of sinful desire.” Such could describe the night-life of many today. Yet she goes on to describe these things as “the sources of my tears.” She has perceived the divinity of Christ and realized the futility of her fleeting, ephemeral life, and in so doing her slavery to pleasure becomes the source of her weeping.
She compares herself to Eve, who sinned in Paradise (see Genesis 3), seeing this story as the story of her own fall. In so doing, she sees her sin in solidarity with all human beings, for Eve, we are told, is “the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20).
The Gospel of Luke draws out an additional point, one that ought to be remembered: “Therefore I say to you,” Jesus says to Simon the Pharisee, “her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”
The point of this saying is not “[s]hall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” The Apostle Paul has a clear answer to that question: “Certainly not!” (Romans 6:1-2) And just as the woman joins herself to the death of Christ as a myrrh-bearer, St. Paul reminds us that Christians have been buried with Christ through baptism that they might live in his resurrection.
No, the point is not that the more one sins, the more one can love. Rather it is that we too often underestimate our own sin. Perhaps we compare ourselves to others. Certainly Simon had not lived a life as bad as the weeping woman, or so he thought. But the truly penitent person says, “I am the first of all sinners,” and “I am guilty of all men’s sins.”
In adopting such a stance, one does so for the sake of humility, and out of that humility reaches to Christ, “Whose mercy is boundless.” Opening oneself to Christ’s love in this way allows us to be so much more filled with it. The one who like the sinful woman is forgiven much, who has the faith to seek such forgiveness, loves much. The one who has been given boundless mercy, can give it to others boundlessly.
On this Holy Wednesday, I hope and pray and resolve to work for such faith that seeks and gives such exceptional love.