An Analysis of the Hymn of Kassiani
"Lord! …Do not disregard me … You, whose mercy is boundless".
The melodious harmony of this hymn reverberates through the Orthodox churches of the world, as the climactic conclusion of the service of Holy Tuesday Evening. The faithful surrender to the waves of contrition*, which descend from the chanters. The hymn spreads to the congregation the touch of another world, a world which the soul yearns for.
There are few hymns which move people so deeply as this one. In a quiet, mystical way, it enters into the deepest parts of our inner cosmos. Turned into ourselves, each one of us witnesses the journey of our soul down a path of slavery and darkness, for which it was not created, and its subsequent dramatic deliverance and emergence into the eternal light.
But what is it that is heard on the night of Holy Tuesday in our churches? Is it a sweet-sounding hymn? A lyrical song? Or a lamentation?
It is all of these, but chiefly, it is a drama with universal connotations. An act without scenery nor actors present on the stage. The chorals are replaced by the sobs and lamentations of the one and only central heroine of the drama. The musical background is «the sources of her tears», «the groaning of her heart», «the embracing and kissing» of the feet of the Lord.
The dramatic act takes place before God in the human soul. Its theme is the realisation of sinfulness which brings a person to contrition, and the «exodus» from the «night» of «intemperance» to the «boundless mercy» of the Saviour.
So is it a drama? Yes, a drama without active scenery. A drama that is universal and real. Universal, because it concerns all people in the world, and real because it is relevant to human life on earth throughout the ages.
It is heroic, because it presents to us, the person, who stands before his sinfulness and is shaken, and confesses it, and even more heroically, looks to the «inexplorable depths» of God’s great mercy to find salvation.
Even though this drama begins from an episode in the life of the Lord, which is described by St Luke the Evangelist (Luke 7:36-50), it surpasses both time and place (the «house of the Pharisee»), and unfolds beyond time in a place which cannot be defined. A place where the central character, the human soul, moves between two extremes; between the human tragedy- «a dark and moonless love of sin»- and the eternity of salvation brought to mankind by the God-Man, who, in His «ineffable condescension, bowed down the Heavens», who takes the soul out of the «ecstasy of darkness», which drives it to madness.
The poet of this masterpiece, which is known as the «Hymn of Kassiani», and which has for 12 centuries moved the souls of the faithful, brings to the fore the universal anguish felt by all for the plight of mankind, which, while in the fatal snare of the Fall and personified in the heroine of this hymn, is described as «the woman who had fallen into many sins». Without other adjectives and titles, which our human presumptuous insensibility often loads onto the back of the unfortunate sinner. The poet, Kassiani, who was «a wise and unique woman, who combined…brilliant perception…and deep piety with an active honesty» (Crumbaher), knew that sin is not only immorality, it is also hypocrisy, rudeness and lack of love, it is egotism, it is the criminal passions, presumptuousness and vanity, which ensnare people in their fatal grasp and leave the fallen man wallowing in his feelings of guilt, without comfort, hope and dignity, far from God’s paternal supervision and obedience. Kassiani, a saint herself, knows from her own spiritual struggle, from her upbringing in ninth century Byzantium, from her education and her spiritual gifts, how to use her poetic genius in a masterful way, as a gift to the incarnate God, the lover of mankind.
Of course, it is not Kassiani who is «the woman who had fallen into many sins», as some thought. She is though, the poet who is anguished as she witnesses the fall of mankind. This anguish however, does not lead her to a pointless cursing of the ‘fate’ of humanity. She climbs onto the wings of Faith, and harbours in God’s love, in order to present, with a unique sensitivity, the human pain that will eventually be healed and lead to the unending doxology of the «soul-saving Lord».
Although the drama of the sinful soul, which is concentrated in «the woman who had fallen into many sins», is expressed directly, simply, painfully with a few words that are full of meaning («lamenting», «Woe to me», «the springs of my tears», «the groaning of my heart», «the multitude of my sins»), simultaneously, the dark landscape of sin is brightened by a sweet light, which shines all the more brightly as, in a dignified yet very real way, the tragedy of sin is unfolded before our eyes.
The sinful soul laments, but not in the emptiness of an inexorable loneliness. From the beginning of the hymn, we hear the cry «Lord!». The sinful woman is not by herself in her pain. Travelling with her on this painful journey is the Lord, to whom her confession is being made.
It is surprising, that, from the start, in this soul in which sin had made its home, the dazzling light of the Lord slipped in. How did this woman «who had fallen into many sins» - «perceiving» - realise that He who was a guest «in the home of the Pharisee» was God? The one and only God?
Divine grace illuminated her, and her heart rejoiced, and without hesitation, she finds her place. The most honoured place for women - «she assumes the role of a Myrrh-Bearer», and with contrition of heart, «lamenting», with a vase full of precious and expensive myrrh (because of a premonition? through the inspiration of God?) she comes to anoint the Lord with myrrh, even before His death!
She comes humbly, with the most precious gifts in the world: in her hands, the tears of worship- the myrrh, and in her eyes, the tears of repentance. She begs: «accept my tears, which spring up from the depths of my pain, in your Heavenly Kingdom, just as you «gather into clouds the water of the sea». And she adds with faith: «bend down over my heart, you who bowed down the Heavens and «condescended» your divinity in order to save mankind» And her anguished voice reverberates under the arches of the church «I will embrace and kiss Your sacred Feet and wipe them again with the tresses of the hair of my head .It is these divine Feet which, when Eve heard them walking in Paradise, in the evening, was afraid and hid, because she was guilty! I know that I am sinful and I ask for Your mercy. The multitude of my sins is like an abyss. However, an abyss are Your judgements also, Your love, which, in a myriad of ways seeks to save the sinner. Who would be able to reach and explore the inexplorable depths of these two bysses O my Soul-Saver?»
‘The woman who had fallen into many sins’, the heroine of the drama which Kassiani presents to us, concludes her prayerful monologue. She proclaims in a way which matches the overall tone-humble, supplicatory, modest- her basic request, which is also the message of the hymn- she expresses it with prayer in a tone of unshakeable faith and certainty : «Do not disregard me…You, whose mercy is boundless».
Translated from the original Greek. Initially appeared in the periodical «Ç ÄñÜóéò ìáò», Issue 398, April 2002
*The more appropriate word is the Greek word «êáôÜíõîç» (an intense feeling of piety, compunction and contrition), whose meaning is very hard to transfer to the English language.