If there were any doubt that women were preachers before the twentieth century, this should put it to rest once and for all. The ninth-century nun, Kassia, was probably the most famous in a line of women preachers who put their sermons into musical poems of sorts and sang them. (I, for one, am relieved that we Presbyterians haven’t borrowed this particular strain from the Syrian homiletical tradition!)
Tradition holds that Kassia used her voice so much that it landed her in hot water (or helped her elude some close calls, depending on how you look at it): as one of a handful of candidates for royal marriage to Emperor Theophilus in 830, she reportedly passed up the opportunity (whether knowingly or unknowingly remains unclear) by speaking out on behalf of women. Then she went on to found a monastery in Constantinople in 843 and become its first abbess. (You go girl.)
Kassia’s hymnic sermon, “To the Harlot,” is both personal, in its moving identification with the woman who anoints Jesus with expensive perfume before Jesus’ death, and universal, in its invitation to share in this woman’s worshipful repentance. The sermon eventually made its way into the Triodion, the Byzantine church service book for Lent:
Lord, the woman who fell headlong into a multitude of sins still recognized your Godhead, and joined the ranks of the Myrrh-bearing women.
Dropping tears she carries myrrh for you before you were laid in the tomb; crying out: Alas! what dark night envelops me; what gloomy, moonless, madness of abandonment is the lust for sin I have.
But take this offering of my spring of tears, you who guide the waters of the seas through the paths of clouds.
Stoop down to me, for the great grief my heart bears; you who made the very skies bow down, before the face of your ineffable self-emptying.
How I shall kiss your immaculate feet! and once again I shall dry them with the hair of my head; those feet whose steps Eve once heard, at dusk in paradise, and then hid herself in fear.
Who can ever sound the depths of my sinfulness or the profundities of your judgments, O My Savior, the Deliverer of our souls?
Do not pass by this your handmaid, you who have such boundless mercy.
For more on Kassia, see John McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: The Byzantine Tradition (New York: Orbis Books, 2001)
Stay tuned for next weird Jesus saying tomorrow: “Foxes have their dens and the birds in the sky have their nests. But the son of man has nowhere he can lay his head.”