The Woman With the Alabaster Jar

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A comely  woman’s face, her eyebrows arched and eyes heavy-lidded and red mouth succulent, glances sideways from within a mosaic fragment on the cover of the CD. The disc is titled “Kassia”, and records Byzantine hymns from “the first female composer of the Occident.” I have not listened to it very often (to be honest, a little bit of Byzantine religious chant goes a long way) but I’ve opened the cover now to scan the disc’s contents for a particular hymn, and I find it. Number 10 of 18 hymns, “The Fallen Woman.”

The daughter of a wealthy family close to the Imperial court in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Kassia (c.810-843/867 CE)

Icon of Kassia public domain

had the privilege of education in Classical Greek studies (I’m reading this in the CD’s booklet) “such as writing and philosophy as well as early Christian studies.” As a respectable woman, society offered her two destinies: marriage or the nunnery. Fortunately for the history of devotional music, Kassia scooped up her dowry and got herself to a nunnery. (Hildegard of Bingen, Sybil of the Rhine, would not appear for another three centuries.) She flourished in the convent as a philosopher, poet, composer, hymnographer and eventually abbess. Fifty of her hymns are extant and 23 are even today  included in Orthodox Liturgical books. The Orthodox Church has recognized her as a saint and in icons she is portrayed, nun-like, cowled, haloed, and grasping a scroll.

(I love this woman, “feminist pioneer of her time,” according to the CD’s liner notes, also celebrated for her secular gnomic verses and epigrams, 789 of which survive. “I hate the rich man, moaning, as if he were poor.” And, under the lash for her defense of icons, “I hate silence, when it is time to speak.” )

The Hymn

Unknowingly, I have in fact heard her “speak,” that is, have read her words many times, each time during Great Lent, when I have opened for daily reflection the slender compilation, Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter: Liturgical Texts with Commentary by the vicar of St. Mary Magdalen’s Church in Oxford, England, Rev. Canon Hugh Wybrew. Every year during Holy week, for Compline of Great and Holy Tuesday, I have been reading fragments of Kassia’s Great Hymn, sung  during the last service of the day (as Matins for Wednesday) and included in Rev. Wybrew’s compilation, and sometimes called The Fallen Woman.

Kassia’s Hymn for Holy Wednesday, from a collection of Hymns and Canons

While you sat at supper, O Word of God, a woman came to you. At your feet she wept, and took the alabaster jar and anointed your head with sweet oil.[…] “Set me free and forgive me,.” cried the prostitute to Christ.

These lines set a well-known scene, or at least its elements, from the Gospels: a weeping woman, a jar, perfumed oil poured over Jesus’s head, the weeping woman beseeching forgiveness. There is much more to it as I read the liner notes: the woman, who has now merely “fallen into many sins,” is evoked as one who will be among the mourning myrrh-bearers on the way to the Tomb on Easter Sunday prepared to bathe Christ’s bloodied corpse with aromatic oils and herbs. Kassia writes   for her, the one with the alabaster jar, and sets to music an exquisite, lilting, melancholic threnody for women’s voices.

Woe to me, she says, for night holds for me the ecstasy of intemperance gloomy and moonless, a desire for sin. Accept the spring of my tears, you who with clouds spread out the water of the sea. Bend down to me to the lamentation of my heart. […] I will tenderly kiss your sacred feet, I will wipe them again with the hair of my head.

There are many more verses (included in Wybrew), as Kassia gives voice to the repentant harlot (“drowning in sin”) but Judas also makes an appearance enslaved to “the enemy,” as does Eve, who hides in the garden at the sound of God’s footfalls, and even the merchant to whom the Woman cries aloud: “Give me oil of myrrh, with which to anoint the Benefactor.”

But I am becoming confused. The weeping woman who opened her alabaster jar to pour its fragrant contents on Jesus’s head as he sat at table with his disciples is also a prostitute who pours the oil, and her tears, on his feet, wiping them dry with the unloosed torrent of her hair. When I do an image-search for The Woman With the Alabaster Jar, I see both gestures. In one such, she stands behind an unsuspecting Jesus who is reclining at table, her jar, bauble-sized, poised in her outstretched hands as though to drop it. In another, she is prostrate at his feet, her long tresses caressing his foot while he rests his hand lightly on her head.


The Source

To sort out my confusion – about how the same event is described variously in the course of Kassia’s Hymn and from there into Orthodox Liturgy – I reason that her source for the story of The Woman With the Alabaster Jar is in one or another of the Gospels that narrate the incidents of Jesus’s ministry. (The term “Gospel” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “god-spell,” which translates from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news.”) In fact she is in all four, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

In Matthew and Mark, in the town of Bethany, she has arrived at the home of Simon, a leper, bearing an alabaster jar of “very costly” fragrant oil. She is unnamed. Jesus is reclining at the dinner table when – one does wonder how she managed to crash this party – she “broke the jar and poured it over his head,” speechless all the while. Mark and Matthew are almost identical in their account of what happened next. Jesus’s disciples, who are among the dinner guests, exclaim indignation at this display of extravagance. “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum” – 300 denarii or a year’s wages – “and given to the poor.”

Jesus is having none of it. And here I imagine the woman standing speechless as ever, empty alabaster phial dangling from her fingers, perhaps drawing her stole over her head as the men loudly harrumph and imprecate. Jesus, forehead and cheeks slicked with oily myrrh that he doesn’t bother to wipe away, bids them to shut up. “Why do you subject the woman to abuse?”  Then, in a phrase – a remonstration – that comes down to us through millennia, he explains why he accepts her precious gift. “She has done me a beautiful deed; for you always have the destitute with you, and you can do good to them whenever you wish [my ital], but you do not always have me.”

Anticipating his own Passion on the cross, he accepts the anointing as the woman’s foreshadowing of his laying-out for burial. “Truly I say to you, wherever these good tidings are proclaimed, in the whole world, what this woman did will also be told, as a memorial to her.”

 And immediately the scene ends.

Note that she-of-no-name is not once spoken of as a “sinner,” much less a “prostitute,” not even by the male disciples, who have now been silenced for eternity while we remember her still.

But in a clue to what will become of her, a footnote to Matthew in the Geneva Bible published 1599, calls her a “sinful woman.” And so she had proven to be, in Luke. In the New King James Version (as in the Orthodox Study Bible), “behold a woman in the city who was a sinner,” entered the house of Simon, a Pharisee (not a leper) who had invited Jesus to dinner. The woman-who-was-a-sinner stood behind the reclining Jesus and wept, and “she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil” she had brought in an alabaster flask.

This gesture infuriates the male host. Simon murmurs sotto voce that if this Man were truly a prophet, He would know “what manner of woman this is,” a prostitute, her hair flagrantly unloosened, her kisses and tears in possession of His feet. Now comes one of the most noble rejoinders in Christian Scripture to misogynist shaming: “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher, say it.” “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. 45 You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. 47 Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.

Perhaps Jesus then holds out his hands and helps the woman up from her knees. What even does a multitude of sins measure compared to love? “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

And here we leave her, shriven of sin, until she shows up again in John.

Once again we are in Bethany, this time in the home of Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus, he “whom Jesus had raised from the dead.” And we are at dinner as usual, with Martha serving, and once again a woman, this time identified as Mary of Bethany, that is, Martha’s and Lazarus’s sister, provides “very costly perfume of pure nard: (aromatic balsam) with which she anoints Jesus’s feet and wipes them dry with her hair “and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” So: no tears, no multitudinous sins or repentance nor even any salvation proffered.

But there is the male spoil-sport, named as Judas Iscariot, he who would betray Jesus with a treacherous kiss. Judas in charge of the disciples’ money-box from which he pilfers denarii for himself. Judas, who loudly signals his virtue. “Why was that perfume not sold for 300 denarii and given to poor people?” Unimpressed by this line of argument – “for you always have the poor with you” – Jesus takes Mary’s part. “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial.”

And so all the way down to the ninth century we are back where I left Kassia:: “O misery of Judas! He saw the harlot kiss Thy feet, and deceitfully he plotted to betray Thee with a kiss. She loosed her hair and he was bound a prisoner by fury, bearing in place of myrrh the stink of evil: for envy knows not how to choose its own advantage. O misery of Judas! From this deliver our souls, O God!”

In only one of the four Gospel appearances of The Woman With the Alabaster Jar is she described as “sinful” (the implication is that the sin is of a sexual nature) and in that version she is also described by Jesus himself as one who has loved (Him) much and so she departs in peace. Whence, then, the wretched “harlot” who may as well be dead? st clement of alexandria

By the ninth century, of course, the Church’s lurid preaching of this story had been long-encoded, including in its Liturgical treasures such as the Hymn of Kassia: “How can I look upon Thee, O Master? Yet Thou hast come to save the harlot.” The Woman in her scandalous fleshiness, her stink and wanton kisses and lewd exhibition of her hair – why, her very gender has condemned her. “[For women] the very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.” Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c150-215).

We are told (in Wikipedia) that Kassia’s Hymn, chanted only once a year, is so popular with sex workers in Greece that, while they are otherwise not often seen in church, do attend the services of Holy and Great Tuesday. I picture them huddled in the vestibule in exalted shame as the Church thunders at them: “And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway! […] Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell!” Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c160-225)

What Finally to Make of The Woman With the Alabaster Jar?

In the liner notes to the CD, Kassia, Diane Touliatos writes: “…unlike any of her contemporary male hymnographers, Kassia defended the virtues of fallen and Christian women in a society where women were expected to be obedient and meek. Kassia stands as a pioneer for her writings, musical compositions, and advocacy for women.” I’m not sure that a deeply-inspired compassion for fallen womankind (who will be saved by male agency, Father and Son) amounts to “advocacy” for women’s personhood under patriarchy. But the blogger, Elizabeth Livingston, sees her as very much her own woman in spite of social constrictions. You can see her thus, striding unaccompanied, purposefully, “in her commitment to Jesus,” to wash his feet in a perfumed oil she could ill afford (it “maybe represented her life’s savings”). Love, devotion, sacrifice – the apogee of feminine service as compared to Judas Iscariot’s (masculine?) arrogance, self-righteousness and sheer bone-headedness.

Although the Evangelists put no words in her mouth (unlike Kassia, who gives her hundreds), Livingston voices her as unbothered by what people are saying about her action, oblivious to all but Him: “It’s about diving fully into the sweetness of His presence.” Then Livingston deploys a metaphor: What is that but the “alabaster box of our lives” that we must break open in order that “the praises of our hearts to Him” pour out?

Or perhaps we can bend the story back to a complex “tradition-history,” as feminist theologian Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza hypothesizes, one that precedes the Gospel narratives or was redacted by their writers: it includes the alabaster flask of ointment, the anointing itself, and the Pharisee, Simon.

Or, as my friend and email correspondent, David Holm, suggests: “We have two different women doing the anointing. One is unidentified but is in the same village, Bethany, as Mary, Martha and Lazarus; and the other woman is probably a prostitute who lived somewhere around the southwestern corner of the Sea of Galilee.”

Let’s hold that thought for now – “probably a prostitute” – for in the Western – but not Eastern – Christian tradition the Woman With the Alabaster Jar will become Mary Magdalene, “the original repentant whore.” And the subject of a future blog post.

Finally, I turned to The Very Rev. Archpriest Fr Roman Bozyk, Dean of the Faculty of (Orthodox) Theology of St. Andrew’s College, University of Manitoba, who always, with admirable patience, hears me out on whatever is troubling me as an Orthodox Christian and responds with compassionate clarity. I asked him: “What do you say to us – me – about contradictions in what the Church teaches as Gospel truth, such as the identity of The Woman With the Alabaster Jar?” He answered: “Each Gospel was written at a particular time for a particular audience, and so details will differ accordingly. But Christ’s message is the same throughout.”

And what is that message? I choose this one: “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”



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