Spy Wednesday Traditions

One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot,
went to the chief priests and said,
“What are you willing to give me
if I hand him over to you?”
They paid him thirty pieces of silver,
and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.

-Mt 26:14-16

Tonight we begin Tenebrae, one of the beautiful Holy Week practices to which we look forward each year.  Although Holy Week began with Palm Sunday, it seems that after Sunday we don’t really “get into the good stuff” liturgically until Spy Wednesday rolls around.  In the Orthodox Church Holy and Great Wednesday is marked by the chanting of a beautiful, medieval hymn commemorating the sinful woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and anoints them with nard, as read in Matthew 26:6-16, the Gospel for Holy Wednesday in the Orthodox Church.

The Hymn of Kassiani, or Troparion of Kassiani (in Byzantine music a troparion is a short hymn of one stanza, or a series of stanzas) is written from the perspective of the sinful woman, and this hymn is sung only once a year. Following the custom of beginning a feast the preceding evening, it is sung on Tuesday evening at the Matins and Presanctified Liturgy of Holy Wednesday.  The words are beautiful, and adding to this is the tradition behind this hymn and its author.

Kassiani was a ninth century abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer from Byzantium.  Born of a wealthy family, and known for her exceptional intelligence and beauty, she desired to give her life to Christ.  However, she found herself one of the finalists in a “bride-show” organized for the young bachelor Theophilus by his stepmother, the Empress Dowager Euphrosyne.  Though it might sound like something from reality tv, a bride-show was one of the ways an emperor would choose a bride.  Having assembled the most beautiful women, he followed an ancient custom and gave a golden apple to his choice, the lovely Kassiani.  Approaching her he said, “Through a woman came forth the baser things,” meaning Eve and the consequences all mankind suffers because of her transgression.  To this the sharp beauty replied, And through a woman came forth the better things,” meaning Our Lady who bore the Son of God in her womb.  Miffed by her reply, Theophilus chose Theodora for his bride instead.

Kassiani recognized God’s Divine Providence in this act, for now she was able to pursue a life devoted completely to God.  She built a monastery on one of the hills of Constantinople and lived a holy life, pursuing prayer and study.  When Emperor Theophilus promoted the iconoclast heresy she remained outspoken in defense of orthodoxy and the veneration of holy images, despite persecution and even scourging for her position. She supported the monks who were imprisoned by visits, gifts, and letters.

It is said that later in life the Emperor, still harboring feelings for her, went to her monastery so that he could see her one last time before he died.  Kassiani was in her cell writing the now-famous hymn when she heard the commotion of the royal retinue arriving outside.  Not wanting to place herself in any occasion of sin, she hid in a closet, and when the Emperor entered her cell he found only the hymn which she had not yet finished.  After weeping tears of regret for having rejected her through pride many years before, he read the hymn and then added one line to it before leaving.  According to legend, he saw her hiding in the closet as he left, but respecting her wish for privacy he said nothing.  This is the line which is attributed to Theophilus: “those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise and hid herself for fear

Hymn of Kassiani

O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins, sensing Your Divinity, takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer. With lamentations she brings you myrrh in anticipation of your entombment. “Woe to me!” she cries, “for me night has become a frenzy of licentiousness, a dark and moonless love of sin. Receive the fountain of my tears, O You who gather into clouds the waters of the sea. Incline unto me, unto the sighings of my heart, O You who bowed the heavens by your ineffable condescension. I will wash your immaculate feet with kisses and dry them again with the tresses of my hair; those very feet at whose sound Eve hid herself in fear when she heard You walking in Paradise in the twilight of the day. As for the multitude of my sins and the depths of Your judgments, who can search them out, O Savior of souls, my Savior? Do not disdain me Your handmaiden, O You who are boundless in mercy.”

Her biographer, George the Sinner, said “She lived only for God, to the end of her life.”  Her holiness and many accomplishments are noteworthy (she is one of only two Byzantine women of the middle ages to write under her own name), and she is honored as a confessor, ascetic, hymnographer and saint of the Orthodox Church.
You can find many recordings of the Hymn of Kassiani online (and we would encourage you to do a search, you’ll find so many beautiful versions, both in the original Greek, in the local language, or in English, sung solo or by a choir).  Requiring a very wide vocal range, the hymn is considered one of the most demanding (if not the most demanding) pieces of solo Byzantine music, and can take up to 20 minutes to perform in its slow, plaintive and sorrowful chant.
Here is a choral version, sung by nuns in a Bulgarian chant arrangement:

Notice how different this version sounds, sung by the monks of the Vatopaidi Monastery on Mt. Athos.

One thought on “Spy Wednesday Traditions

  1. Hello Sisters, Thank you for this most informative posting. I admit that, despite being a “Cradle Catholic”, I had never heard of Spy Wednesday until last night when our Choir Director mentioned it. Then your posting popped into my inbox today and I was enlightened! The Hymn sung by the Bulgarian nuns was an inspiration. I find that as I get older, l love chant more and more. I pray that each of you enjoys a most uplifting Holy Week and joyous Easter Sunday. Many Blessings, Diana

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