April 18, 2006
Matins of Holy Wednesday
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
This evening we read and sang many texts. Included in these texts are many details which either echo or embellish events recorded in the Scriptures. One detail I would like us to begin with has to do the sinful woman wiping the feet of our Lord with her hair. But before getting to that detail, I want to begin with a simple question; How do we know that the woman we read and sang about was a harlot? Indeed, our hymnody repeatedly refers to the woman wiping Jesus' feet as a harlot. But, if we carefully comb the Gospels, there is not one word about her being a prostitute.
If we look as the Gospel according to St. Matthew there is no reference whatsoever to the woman anointing the feet of Jesus with costly myrrh as being sinful (26:6-13). Likewise for the Gospel according to St. Mark (14:3-9). In the Gospel according to St. Luke (7:36-50), which plays a significant role in this evening's hymnody, reference is made to her coming to the house of a Pharisee and that she was "sinful". But here again, and this is why I continue to stress that we Orthodox must carefully read and study the Bible, no reference is made to being a harlot. What is especially interesting is that this sinful woman has no difficulty in entering the home of the Pharisee. No one blocks or impedes her joining the company of guests. This sinful woman enters the home of one who belongs to that group of Jews who pride themselves in knowing and keeping pure the Law. From a social perspective it is difficult to imagine one who knows and keeps pure the law associating with a woman stigmatized for being a harlot.
The sinful woman in the Lucan text may very well have been a harlot. But she may have also been an adulteress. The text states that she is from the "city" and therefore presumably known in the "city". Regardless of her sin or sins she is a woman of ill repute who at the feet of the Master sees herself as she truly is -- sees herself as a sinner and begins to weep over his feet.
Following the Lucan text the sinful woman enters the home of the Pharisee and draws near to the Lord. Positioning herself behind him she begins to weep over his feet. As her tears fall on the feet of Jesus she wipes them with her hair and then anoints them with myrrh. In the Gospels of Mathew and Mark the woman pours the ointment on the Lord's head. In the Gospel according to St. John it is Mary the sister of Lazarus who anoints and wipes the feet of Jesus with her hair (12:1-8).
Another extremely important detail is the woman wiping the feet of Jesus with her loose hair. Unfortunately, as it gets darker and later we do not have enough time to go through all the very interesting aspects associated with the loose hair of women in antiquity. In and outside antique Judaism loose hair of women has many meanings or signs. The most popular associations made to loose hair have to do with sexual connotations. That the loose hair of women in antiquity was sexually suggestive cannot be disputed. But loose hair has other poignant connotations. Loose hair signifies tremendous sorrow. It indicates religious piety as well as mourning. The loose hair of a woman can signify thankfulness. Among the early Christians -- and I find this to be one of the most interesting aspects of a woman's loose hair -- women were required to wear their hair loose when being baptized. Apparently among gentile women becoming Christians there were cases of pagan amulets or deities being worn and hidden in bound hair. Loose hair signified for the gentile woman being baptized that a complete break was being made with the old life including the attachment to "worldly adornment" as well as to idols and idol worship.
Now what about the wonderful woman we encounter this evening? Last night I spoke briefly about hypocrisy and how the hypocrite is an actor. Tonight we can add to this description. The hypocrite is one who wears a mask. Hypocrisy is duplicity -- what you see is not what you get, what you see is a facade. In the case of the sinful woman there is no mask, there is no duplicity. She enters the house of the Pharisee and draws near to the Lord and weeps over his feet. Her loose hair indicates mourning. Using her loose hair to wipe the Lord's feet suggests an erotic act. But here we must understand eros in its fullest sense. Today, unfortunately, eros and the erotic are paired with the pornographic. We Christians need to reclaim these terms. With regards to this woman, eros and the erotic have nothing to do with the pornographic. The eros of this woman refers to her total giving of self completely to the one who offers himself completely to her. As she wipes the feet of Jesus she totally gives her love to one who loves her from all eternity.
In pouring the myrrh on Jesus' feet the sinful woman prepares her Lord for burial. Her loose hair signifies mourning and also joy and thankfulness. She recognizes that the one she is before is truly the one who rescues her from her sin. While on her knees she perceives Jesus as the one who takes away her sin and the sin of the whole world. With her hair unbound, this woman shows us as well as the Pharisee whose house she has entered that she is the true host. The Lord says to the Pharisee, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with myrrh." (Luke 7: 44-46) Therefore this woman shows us and all the world how we are to greet and host our Savior. She shows us how to embrace and love the one who with great desire yearns to love and embrace us.
With the mutual love between the sinful woman and Jesus we come to the tragic texts of our hymnody this evening. Judas who was called to be the Lord's disciple, who is one of the twelve and hence one of those closest to Jesus, no longer allows his Master to be part of his life. Judas ceases to be hospitable to the Lord. He ceases to allow Jesus to remain in the home of his being. Ceasing to host the Lord, Judas turns away from life and light and walks the path leading to his horrible death.
Dear brothers and sisters, the sinful woman shows us -- teaches us -- that we have to be able to see ourselves as we are in relationship to God. She confirms to us that when we can open our minds and hearts to the one who is closer to us than our own breath, then we will loose ourselves from all that holds us back from being open to new and eternal life. Then we will fall down before the feet of the Master in true repentance removing all our masks, all our disguises. And like this blessed woman we will rejoice, we will offer thanks, we will invite the Lord into our lives receiving and hosting him. In doing this he in turn will reveal to us how from all eternity he has desired to host us in the eternal banquet of his kingdom which we are called to enter now and forever. Amen.
Copyright © 2006 by Father Robert M. Arida