Lenten observations: repentance as the doorway to renewed faith

Saint Kassia, the ninth century Byzantine abbess, poet and hymnographer whose beautiful Hymn of repentance features in the Matins/Orthros service for Great and Holy Wednesday during Lent’s Holy Week.

This links directly to the hymn of St Kassia.

As this is my first Lent as a chrismated Orthodox Christian, in all my uncertainty in how to approach the Great Fast as a ‘rookie’, I have come to two observations as we continue on through the transportive and mystical solemnity of Holy Week toward the Paschal joy of the Resurrection.

The first is that it seems like everyone observes the dietary restrictions to varying extents, and people do not stress about this nearly as much as I would have worried or expected.

Fr. Raphael, one of the archimandrites at St. Andrew’s parish church here in Edinburgh, was wonderfully helpful in urging me to ‘live’ my first Lenten fast above all in my conduct toward others, especially the Lord’s beloved poor, rather than adhering exactly to the Church’s dietary proscriptions. I have omitted all meat, which to my immense surprise has not been very difficult, and has kindled in me an unexpected love for falafel! While I do not under-eat to the point of illness or anything approaching that kind of severity, I find that always being a little hungry has actually sharpened my concentration and my resolve to accomplish goals in a timely manner, knowing that I am consciously avoiding what I would normally do in the event of creeping inattention: pause and refuel with a most likely unhealthy food choice.

Somehow, through the grace of God, eating less has opened my soul more and more to heartfelt prayer at all hours of the day. I am reminded in this daily encounter with the Holy Spirit, who seeks, despite all my iniquities and repeated failings, to find a place deep within my heart, of the beautiful words King David left us in Psalm 34:1, 8-10 (LXX):

“I will praise the Lord at all times, his praise shall continually be in my mouth. Taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man who hopes in him. Fear the Lord, all ye his saints: for there is no want to them that fear him. The rich have become poor and hungry: but they that seek the Lord diligently shall not want any good thing.”

The second thing I have observed is that images and references to repentant women (usually prostitutes) are very common throughout Lent and, indeed, in Holy Week. These references challenge us to put ourselves – male and female – in their place, and witness the truly extraordinary changes God can effect in even those who seem the most ‘lost’. Two weeks ago, on Sunday April 1, the Church honoured St Mary of Egypt. This reformed prostitute spent the last half of her life as a desert ascetic after her conversion in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit (or the Theotokos, depending on which account one reads) barred her from entering into the presence of a relic of the True Cross.

Then there is the Church’s observation today, Holy and Great Wednesday, in the very heart of Holy Week. Since the ninth century the Church has used the Hymn of Kassia (variously spelled Kassiani, Cassiane, Cassia, etc.) in today’s Matins or Orthros services. St Kassia is a remarkable figure. This mysterious Byzantine noblewoman (to whom an incredible thirty volumes of works are attributed) was a ninth century abbess, poet, composer and hymnographer who was a committed iconodoule.

Her defense of the veneration of icons aroused the ire of the iconoclast Emperor Theophilos, who, according to Byzantine chroniclers, had earlier rejected her at a ‘bride show’ when she allegedly repudiated an insulting comment he made. Approaching her, the emperor reflected that sin and death first entered the world ‘from woman’, e.g. Eve’s transgression, to which Kassia replied that then so too had the possibility of man’s redemption and eternal life through Christ.

Kassia’s beautiful hymn captures the lamentations of the “woman of many sins”, the repentant woman whose dramatic act of devotion and faith in Christ is recorded in Luke 7:37-50. As you will hear if you click on the link provided at the beginning of this post, it is one of the most challenging, slowly chanted pieces in the Church’s Lenten Triodion, chanted only once a year during the divine service for Great and Holy Wednesday.

For centuries the singing of the hymn has drawn many prostitutes to enter churches to listen to it so that they might “hear Kassia speak”. Today at the parish church of St Andrew’s in Edinburgh during the service of the Anointing, several prostitutes entered the chapel halfway though its duration. I felt a strong sense that these women were invisibly compelled, drawn by something – was it the Holy Spirit? – to enter the church and worship with us, their fellow sinners. Saint Silouan refers to the Holy Spirit as “love and sweetness to the soul”, and perhaps these women, some of them infrequent visitors to churches, longed to return to His love which “the soul without words feels” and of which “she is inexpressibly aware”. The soul, desiring above all to know God’s love, “would remain wrapped in its quiet tranquility forever.” (Wisdom from Mount Athos, pgs. 22-24.)

It was such a delight to see these women in church, and I felt a strong urge to simply smile at them and make them feel as welcome as possible with my actions so that they might come back more frequently. If God is truly the Physician of our souls, how can we not be possessed of a great love for these women, many of whom undertake their sad form of work to make ends meet and support children or family members, some to support terribly destructive drug habits, and still others suffering in fear, in desperation, and in general hopelessness caused by the twin alternating evils of abuse and neglect? How can we not love them deeply? We are called to respect and cherish the image of God alive in them.

These women did not stay for the anointing. The small chapel in the house church was filled to the brim with people standing around the two con-celebrating priests, and a young Russian woman and I were both pressed in near the back, she standing rather uncomfortably close to me. I do not think she realized I was pressed up against the back bench! When she asked me if I would be at Pascha vigil and liturgy, moving to the side of where I stood as she spoke, I assumed she was moving to put her coat down, or ask for me to switch places with her so that she could sit on the bench. I was rather startled to see her then walk out of the church, smiling as she moved toward the door.

As my mind refocused back on the Liturgy at hand, I was reminded of Luke’s account of the penitent woman’s profoundly emotional and reverential act of anointing Jesus’ feet with precious oils and with her tears of repentance. How He marvels at this treatment from her, when His disciples stand by with no such genuine or heartfelt offering! This parable conveys a powerful message – not only to prostitutes, male or female – but to all of us who sin. All of us fall short in a variety of ways, sometimes slightly, often gravely, of honouring and living to be worthy of the image of the Divine Person, of Christ Himself, present in each of us.

In her great faith, which Christ commended before absolving her of her many sins, the penitent woman is not closed off from the possibility of salvation. Rather, she embodies the very ideal of the Lenten journey, this mystical entry into the very innermost life of the living ancient Church. She – like any one of us – might appear as nothing in this world, ridiculed and rejected by the Pharisees of our time, but she – and therefore, all of us – have the blessing of the possibility of new life in union with the Saviour. It is this joy in coming back to God, seeking to enter again into the fullness of relationship with Him, which so animates her as she beholds the Incarnate Deity before her. It is this light which radiates from her very being and finds the most natural expression in her tears. Her tears call us to tears of repentance in the coming days and nights as we enter into the most sacred points of the Christian year.

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In union with the whole Church, those alive here and those ‘yet alive’ in the next world in Christ, we will partake of Communion and observe the moment of the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, and we enter into the mounting drama of Christ’s prayers in Gethsemane and His arrest, trial and abuse. On Good Friday we will behold and wonder at the cosmic shift which took place at Christ’s death upon the Cross, when the God Who created the heavens and all that is gave His life so that all might have life anew in Him.

Then on Holy Saturday we will wait, having buried in shrouds of grief the Eternal God who came to earth Incarnate as the Theanthropos, the God-Man, fully human and fully divine. We will ponder on Christ’s descent into Hades whereby, in His voluntary death, He conquered the power of Death, ending for all who believe in Him as God Incarnate the permanent passing unto eternal death which was before. At last, after we have waited eagerly for our Saviour to rise again from the tomb, and having striven to purify ourselves of the passions which so often rule over us, we will behold the miracle of miracles and partake in the Feast of Feasts, the Great Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord, and sing the triumphant words of the Paschal stichera:

 “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those who hate Him flee from before His face!” (LXX Ps. 67:1)

“This is the day which the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (LXX Ps. 117:24)

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