Tears of Compunction in Byzantine Hymnody

By Andrew Mellas, The University of Sydney

Byzantine hymnody portrayed compunction as a blessed passion, intertwined with the experience of paradisal nostalgia and an outpouring of tears. The mystical significance of compunction emerges in the liturgical performance of sacred song, which interwove feeling and mystery, enacting the encounter between humanity and the divine. Liturgical hymns were not simply a remembrance of biblical events or a theatrical display of divine things but the enactment of a sacred drama that created a space for the participation of the faithful in the mystery of salvation. The liturgical world of compunction embodied ‘the harmonious habitus that was ordered toward divine things’ and it was there that heaven and earth converged in the hearts of the faithful.[1] The liturgy was the song of theology where the faithful experienced ‘the concord of divine things, their selves and others’ as one harmonious choir.[2] In the mystery of worship, the faithful sang hymns with the angels and entered an unconfused unity where all were joined to each other.

Image of archangel Gabriel, thirteenth-century icon from the Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, Egypt.
Image of Archangel Gabriel, thirteenth-century icon from the Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, Egypt.


Through the mystagogy of liturgy, human emotion could be transformed into divine emotion. Hymnody performed scriptural narrative and invited the Byzantine faithful to become protagonists in the sacred story of salvation. It was the affective script that sought to elicit a metamorphosis of the passions. Hymnody presented the congregation with the words and song of those that had gone before them, so that with ‘courage like Jacob’, with the ‘tears of the harlot’, ‘like the woman with the issue of blood’, the faithful could cry, ‘stretch out your hand to me as once you did to Peter’.[3] In doing so, they invited human feelings to become liturgical feelings. One precondition for this to occur was the nature of the ecclesial community the liturgy was portrayed as engendering. As John Chrysostom remarked, this ‘body of the faithful is one’ and ‘is divided by neither time nor place’.[4] The other precondition for this to occur was the Incarnation, which ‘taught [the flesh] to feel things beyond its nature’ by uniting it to the divine in the person of Christ.[5] It was in liturgical worship that such mystical knowledge could be felt and the faithful could grasp this mystery. Patristic tradition attributed Christ’s emotions not simply to his human nature but ascribed them to the one incarnate Logos who ‘suffered in the flesh, and was crucified in the flesh, and experienced death in the flesh’.[6] And, according to this tradition, what the Logos assumed, he also healed and transformed.

A well-known example of Byzantine hymnography is the magnum opus of Kassia (c.810–865), the only known female author whose hymns appear in Eastern Christendom’s liturgical books:

O Lord, the woman fallen into many sins, sensing your Divinity, takes up the order of myrrhbearer, lamenting she brings you myrrh before your entombment. ‘Woe is me!’ she says, ‘for night contains me, the longing for excess, gloomy and moonless, the eros of sinfulness. Accept my springs of tears, you who weave from the clouds the water of the sea; bend down to me, towards the groanings of my heart, you who bowed the heavens by your ineffable kenosis. I will tenderly kiss your undefiled feet and wipe them again with the tresses of my head; those feet at whose beat in the twilight of Paradise, resounding in her ears, Eve hid in fear. Who can trace out the multitude of my sins or the abyss of your mercy, O my soul-saving Saviour? Do not cast me, your handmaid, aside, you who unmeasurably bear great mercy’.[7]


This hymn was chanted during Holy Wednesday, days before Christ’s passion. The very first word of the hymn (Lord) is an unadorned opening of a prayer yet it betokens the compunctious tone that emerges in the words that follow. Kassia identifies her protagonist as a woman fallen into many sins and dramatises how she is paradoxically able to perceive the divine nature of Christ. In this moment of compunction, the woman’s transformation begins. She rises from the depths of her sin and becomes a myrrhbearer. As this happens, Kassia evokes the scene of the burial and resurrection of Christ, transporting the faithful away from the initial scene, which unfolds in Simon’s house, to the moment when the myrrhbearers go to anoint Jesus’s body in the tomb and become the first to learn he has risen. Kassia’s protagonist anoints Christ in anticipation of his death, blurring the two narratives.

The first word the woman utters – Οἴμοι (woe is me) – is reminiscent of the Homeric and Aristophanic literature of ancient Greece but is also the lament that Adam exclaims during the hymns that are sung to mark the exile from Paradise at the beginning of Lent. But on Holy Wednesday, the exclamation of Adam becomes the lament of a woman who cries out with the paradisal nostalgia of the first-created human. Moreover, the performance of this hymn and the indeterminate subjectivity of the protagonist invite the faithful to sing her cry of ‘Οἴμοι!’ as if this shout of repentance was their very own. The performance of the hymn fuses the singer’s subjectivity with Kassia’s protagonist. The hymn continues its recapitulation of the Lenten journey of exile, repentance and salvation as the woman describes the concupiscence that has overtaken her as ‘moonless’ (ἀσέληνος). The alienation of Kassia’s protagonist from the divine is such that even the reflection of light is absent from her existence. But in the midst of night, without any natural light, the darkness gives way to a glimpse of the divine.

The woman’s first petition mingles words with tears as she asks the Creator who disperses the waters of the sea from the clouds to accept her weeping. Although it could easily be a case of antithesis, contrasting her abjectness with the grandeur of the Lord’s power, Kassia also appears to evoke the act of creation. She places her protagonist at the centre of a cosmic drama where her fallenness and the groans of her heart ignite the divine eros of God who leaves the summit of his omnipotence and is born as a helpless baby through the ineffable kenosis of the Logos. The God who can bend the heavens to his will, bends down to the compunction of a woman’s heart. And as her protagonist kisses and caresses the feet of Christ, Kassia once again transports the faithful back to Eve’s encounter with God in Eden when she fled at the sound of his footsteps after she had tasted the forbidden fruit. Yet here Kassia presents another antithesis: whereas Eve allowed her sin to alienate her from God, the woman in Kassia’s hymn transcends her fallenness through repentance at the feet of the incarnate Logos.

The anointing of Christ's feet from Xanthopulus and Ephraem the Syrian, Eastern Mediterranean, 4th quarter of the 14th Century, Egerton MS 3157, f. 45v
The anointing of Christ’s feet from Xanthopulus and Ephraem the Syrian, Eastern Mediterranean, 4th quarter of the 14th Century, Egerton MS 3157, f. 45v. Courtesy of the British Library.

Kassia amplifies the biblical narrative of Luke 7:36–50, giving the sinful woman a voice and unveiling her interiority. Whereas the biblical figure that is the subject of the hymn is silent in the Gospel, her voice dominates Kassia’s poem. However, even after guiding the faithful through the compunction and repentance of this woman who had fallen into many sins, Kassia leaves the question of her identity unresolved. The hymn also obscures the woman’s harlotry by employing oblique references to the darkness of her eroticism. The performance of the hymn blurs the distinctions between body and soul by meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation. In touching Christ’s feet, the woman’s act of humiliation intersects with the site of divine humiliation. Out of the woman’s yearning for salvation spring her tears, which betoken nostalgia for the loss of Paradise. At this moment in the hymn, the hymnographer invokes the scene in the book of Genesis where Eve fearfully flees the sound of God but reimagines the scriptural narrative in a profound way. Although the faithful would not have been surprised by the notion of God walking through Eden, Kassia’s hymn identifies the feet the protagonist washes with her tears with the feet of God who appeared to Adam and Eve in Eden. This textual synchronicity between the Old Testament and the Gospel weaves a fascinating dialogue between a prelapsarian world and the new creation inaugurated by the Incarnation. Sacred song interweaves biblical figures and events from the past and the future into the liturgical moment of performance.

Compunction in Kassia’s On the Sinful Woman emerges as an act of extreme vulnerability. It is a tearing down of the fortifications that protected the faithful from experiencing the assault of divine passion. Kassia’s hymn is a collective space of liturgical action that sought to draw in the faithful and invite them to experience the sacred drama that unfolded during Holy Week in Constantinople. The congregation could follow in the footsteps of, and identify with, the woman who had fallen into many sins as she journeyed toward repentance. In entering this sacred narrative, they did not remain in one point of time but followed the protagonist as she travelled with Christ to the exile of Adam and Eve from Eden and then to his crucifixion, death and resurrection. And they could experience her tears, which circumscribed ‘the path that leads towards the new age’.[8]

Andrew Mellascompleted his PhD at The University of Sydney in 2018, with support from the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and the guidance of CHE Chief Investigator Juanita Ruys. His thesis explored Byzantine experiences of the emotion of compunction through the hymns of Romanos the Melodist (c.490–560), Andrew of Crete (c.660–740) and Kassia (c.810–865). He is an Honorary Associate at the Medieval and Early Modern Centre, The University of Sydney, and a sessional lecturer in Byzantine Studies at St Andrew’s Theological College.


[1] Dionysius the Areopagite, The Celestial Hierarchy 1.3.

[2] Dionysius the Areopagite, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 1.5.

[3] These quotations are taken from various strophes of Andrew of Crete’s Great Kanon.

[4] Homily on the Apostolic Saying that States: But Know this, that in the Last Days Perilous Times will Come, ch. 6, PG 56, 277.

[5] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John 7 (on John 11:33), PG 74, 53A.

[6]Cyril of Alexandria, The Twelve Chapters, Anathema 12.

[7] The English translation is based on the Greek text in three of the earliest manuscripts of the Triodion:  Sinai Graecus 734–735, fol. 159r–v; Vaticanus Graecus 771, fol. 162v; Grottaferrata Δβ I, fol. 161r.

[8] Isaac the Syrian, Homilies 35 [37] and 14. Quoted in Kallistos Ware, “‘An Obscure Matter”: The Mystery of Tears in Orthodox Spirituality’, in Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination, edited by Kimberley Christine Patton and John Stratton Hawley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 250.

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