From woman also came the best
Published: Apr 20, 2011 by Maria Gwyn McDowell
Every year on Tuesday evening of Holy Week the “Hymn of Kassiani” is sung. The text references the reading for Holy Wednesday morning, the story of a woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with costly ointment, foreshadowing his imminent preparation for burial (Matthew 26:6-16). The hymn is written by a woman, it is about a woman, and it is traditionally sung by women. As a woman, I have joined with other women to sing it many times. Every year, I meet this moment with mixed emotions. As with many iconic and hymnic references to women, this undeniably beautiful piece highlights the redemption of a particularly sinful woman whose sin is, of course, related to sex. I say “of course” since if one was to attend carefully to the various references to women in our theological literature, sexual sin seems to be the particular purview of women. A friend of mine (not Orthodox), with whom I had discussed the ever-bizarre world of “what does one do or not do with one’s significant other while dating,” commented after coming to hear me sing the hymn: “No wonder you have all this angst about dating when every reference to a woman is paired with ‘sin’ and ‘sex.’” The fairness of her comment about my angst aside, the frequency of this pairing is quite disturbing.
Which is why I was so delighted at the way our priest chose to frame the hymn last night. You see, St. Kassiani (Sep 7), the woman to whom authorship of this (and many other hymns) is attributed, was not even remotely angst-filled. Rather, she was bold, cheeky, and quite willing to take on authority.
Invited by the mother-in-law of Theophilus the Iconoclast to a “bride show,” only the beautiful and intelligent Kassiani and the beautiful Theodora remained from among the original field of eligible young women. Theophilus was to make the final choice by handing a golden apple to his intended bride. Apparently, Theophilus valued beauty, but not necessarily intelligence. Standing before Kassiani, Theophilus stated: “Εκ γυναικός ερρύη τα χείρω” (“From woman came the worst in the world”), a reference to Eve and her introduction of sin into Paradise. Kassiane calmly replied: “αλλ’ ως εκ γυναικός πηγάζει τα κρείττω” (“From woman also came the best”), referring to the Virgin Mary who bore the Son of God. As our priest summarized, “the issue was settled then and there, and Theodora got the golden apple and became the Empress.”
Kassiani went on to reject marriage entirely, start a monastery, and write hymns for which she is one of the few (only?) women credited by name. Our priest noted that she did this despite not being “taken to0 seriously at first because of male domination in this field.” Kassiani was also known as an outspoken opponent of iconoclasm, putting her life at risk under an iconoclastic former-suitor (if you could call him that).
To be fair, the woman who won the golden apple was hardly a shrinking violet. Despite her husband’s adamant opposition to and destruction of icons, upon his death it became clear that St. Theodora disagreed with him. She had maintained her own veneration throughout her marriage, raised her children to do so (apparently right under his nose), lied when almost caught (“I was playing with dolls” - yes, saints lie), and upon his death issued the Proclamation of 843 which restored the veneration of icons.