Accept Me Now as I am Repenting: Holy Wednesday and the anointing of Jesus

"The harlot let out her hair for You the Master;
Judas put out his hand to the transgressors of the Law."

-Aposticha of Bridegroom Orthros for Holy Wednesday
The harlot anoints Jesus for his burial
Yesterday we saw Jesus speaking with his disciples about his second coming, and giving images to help the disciples understand what his second coming will be like. All of the Gospel readings for Holy Week that we have seen so far have focused on Jesus' the things Jesus taught while in Jerusalem. Holy Wednesday marks a transition in the narrative of Holy Week from Jesus' teaching ministry to the events directly leading up to his passion.
The focus of the hymnology and the Gospel reading (Matthew 26:6-16) for Holy Wednesday is Jesus' anointing with an expensive ointment by a woman who is identified by Luke 7:36-50 simply as a 'sinful woman.' Moreover, she is someone who is known publicly as living a sinful life. This supports her identification by the hymnology as prostitute.
This is now the second time we have seen Jesus being anointed with an expensive ointment. In our Gospel reading for Palm Sunday (John 12:1-18) we saw that Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointed Jesus prior to his entry into Jerusalem six days before the Passover. Although some have suggested that Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, and the 'sinful woman' are in fact the same person, the Tradition of the Orthodox Church has always understood them to be separate. The anointing that is narrated to us today, then, is a different event from the anointing by Mary of Bethany.
Nonetheless, this anointing gets the same reaction. The disciples and the others at table with Jesus are indignant at the waste of this precious ointment, which they suggest should have been sold for the benefit of the poor. Jesus responds to the disciples now in the same way he responded to Judas earlier:
"Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her."
As we will see on Holy Friday, after Jesus' death his body was removed from the Cross and anointed by Joseph and Nikodemos with ointments and spices for burial. The stone that they laid his body out on for its anointing is preserved in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, and is the first thing that a person sees when they enter the Church.

Anointing Stone, Church of the Resurrection, Jerusalem

After his entombment, a group of women known as the Myrrhbearing Women (which included Mary of Bethany) brought more ointments and spices to his tomb to further anoint his body, but they found the tomb empty. The double anointing that Jesus received before his passion from Mary of Bethany and from the 'sinful woman' were done in place of the anointing that Jesus' body would have received from the Myrrhbearing Women had his body still been in the tomb.

The highlight of the Holy Wednesday services is the chanting of the "Hymn of Kassiani," which is included both in the Bridegroom Orthros on Holy Tuesday evening and the Vesperal Presanctified Liturgy on Holy Wednesday morning. This hymn shows us the depth of the woman's repentance from her sinful life, while also giving a high confession of Christ as the same God who walked with Adam and Eve in Paradise:

"Lord, when the woman who had fallen into many sins perceived Your divinity, she assumed the role of a myrrh-bearing woman, and lamenting brought fragrant oils to anoint You before Your burial. 'Woe is me,' she says. 'Night for me is a frenzy without restraint, very dark and moonless, a sinful love-affair. Accept the fountains of my tears, You who draw out from the clouds the water of the sea. Take pity on me, and incline to the sighing of my heart, You who bowed the heavens by Your ineffable self-emptying. I shall cover Your unstained feet with kisses, and wipe them dry again with the locks of my hair; those feet, whose sound at twilight in Paradise echoed in Eve's ears, and she hid in fear. Who can reckon the multitude of my sins, or fathom the depths of Your judgments, O my life-saving Savior? Do not despise me, Your servant, since without measure is Your mercy.'"

This hymn is attributed to St. Kassiani the Hymnographer. St. Kassiani was born into a wealthy family in early 9th-century Constantinople. The following story about her composition of the Hymn for Holy Wednesday has come down to us from multiple Byzantine historians.

When the Empress Evphrosyne was looking for a wife for her son the iconoclast Theophilos, she invited many beautiful women to a 'bride show' for him. Kassiani was one of these young women. Taken in by her beauty, Theophilos approached and smugly remarked:

Εκ γυναικός τα χείρω.
From woman comes the worse things.

He said this in reference to Eve's sin and the subsequent fall and suffering of all of creation. Kassiani, however, would not allow this insult to her gender to pass, and responded:

Kαι εκ γυναικός τα κρείττω.
From woman also come the greater things.

Kassiani said this, of course, in reference to the salvation of the world that has come through the virgin Mary bearing the God-man Christ.

Theophilos was not looking for a wife who could speak up for herself, and so he rejected Kassiani and instead married St. Theodora, who would champion the restoration of icons after Theophilos' death in 842AD.

Kassiani became abbess of a women's monastery to the west of Constantinople, which was likely a dependency of the famous Stoudion Monastery. There, she began writing the hymnology that she is famous for. On one occasion (and this portion of the story may be legendary), she began writing the hymn for Holy Wednesday. However, when she was in the middle of writing it, she received word that the the Emperor Theophilos had arrived at the monastery. Kassiani hid herself, fearing that he had come to the monastery in anger at their earlier conversation. When Theophilos entered her cell, he found her half-written manuscript ending at the words "I shall cover Your unstained feet with kisses, and wipe them dry again with the locks of my hair; those feet, whose sound at twilight in Paradise echoed in Eve's ears..." Knowing that Kassiani was hiding herself, Theophilos took up her pen and finished the line for her: "...and she hid in fear." Theophilos then departed, and Kassiani completed the hymn with his addition left in place.

St. Kassiani the Hymnographer

The Hymn of Kassiani is often sung by a woman from the congregation rather than by the usual chanters. In Greece, the Bridegroom Orthros on Holy Tuesday evening is one of the only times a year that many prostitutes will visit the Church; it is common to see them weeping during the chanting of the Hymn of Kassiani.

As we continue to follow our Lord on the road to his passion, death, burial, and resurrection for our sake, let us follow also the example of the 'sinful woman.' Let us show Christ a sign of our repentance through our heartfelt tears. Let our tears of repentance today be to Christ like another anointing for his burial, and let us say along with the 'sinful woman': "Do not despise me, Your servant, since without measure is Your mercy."