The Pappas Patristic Institute is grateful to Fr Kevin Kalish of Bridgewater State University for this guest contribution, which explores the back-story of the Sinful Woman as found especially in the hymnography of Holy Wednesday. This essay reflects some of the insights in Fr Kevin's forthcoming book, She Who Loved Much: The Sinful Woman in Saint Ephrem the Syrian and the Orthodox Tradition (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Publications, 2022).
Fr Kevin Kalish
In the liturgical offices for Holy Week, each day centers upon a particular theme leading up to the celebration of Pascha. Wednesday of Holy Week, for instance, focuses on the woman who anoints Jesus in preparation for his burial. In the service of Orthros, one of the verses at the Praises introduces a non-biblical character. The verse following the singing of Glory (the doxastikon), refers to a narrative element not found in the Gospel:
The sinful woman hastened to buy precious oil of myrrh, with which to anoint the Benefactor, and she cried aloud to the merchant.
The story of the sinful woman who anoints Christ comes from the Gospel of Luke (7:36-50). Who is this merchant who sells her the myrrh? And where do we find this part of the sinful woman’s story? The story of the sinful woman — who she was, what she went through to get the myrrh, what she might have thought and said — grew over time and spread across various cultures; eventually, the sinful woman’s back-story became so familiar that liturgical texts could allude to the story of her acquiring the myrrh with the expectation that audiences would know about this narrative detail. This familiarity was due primarily to the narrative expansions found in patristic homilies, many of which were read during Holy Week. Foremost among these homilies is a Greek homily attributed to Ephrem the Syrian, now known as the work of Greek Ephrem (not a person but a collection of texts).
In a forthcoming book (Holy Trinity Publications, September 2022), I unpack this tradition of imagining the sinful woman’s back-story. Central to the story is Greek Ephrem’s homily The Repentant Harlot, which provides the missing narrative details about the sinful woman purchasing the oil of myrrh. What follows are some excerpts from this remarkable homily.
The homily imagines a dialogue between the sinful woman and the myrrh-seller. After she asks for the perfumed oil, the myrrh-seller assumes it is for one of her lovers and interrogates her, asking who this new lover is. Of course, these details are not found in the Gospels, and this allows the homilist to imagine their dialogue. The myrrh-seller asks the woman about the identity of her new love:
More than once I have asked you to tell me: is he above all other men, and is there on earth no one more beautiful than him? Is that why you are so wounded by his beauty, that you take the distinguished aromatic oil to the beautiful one? Could he be of the lineage of David, the righteous king? Or is he from the lineage of the great Abraham, the friend of the most high? Why do you not want to reveal to me who he is? Tell me, why are you so consumed by your eagerness to see his beauty?
This leads the woman to relate how she saw Christ performing miracles, and this changed everything for her. She is surprised by the interest the myrrh-seller shows, and this allows her to say more about Christ:
The woman, seeing his great attention to detail, was quite amazed by his diligence and his desire for detailed information about her beloved. And so she answered: “I suppose that nothing I did in the city escaped notice, as I sullied myself in harlotry at every hour and I caught others in the same defilement. Suddenly I saw that holy one, who appeared on the earth as a healer and savior, and immediately my soul was taken captive by his undefiled beauty. For I saw with my eyes awe-inspiring healings, incomparable signs, and great compassion. He receives sinners, associates with tax-collectors, and does not reject lepers. He does not drive away the sick, but he receives everyone equally in his compassion, and is not angry with those who approach him. Seeing all of this, I was astounded and said to myself: 'How can I, the wretched one, go on living, if I don’t I approach him? My sins are many, and likewise my debauchery is great; my corruption is immense. Why am I heedless, when I may never find another time such as this, nor another healer who so loves mankind? I am entirely convinced that it is God who has appeared with great authority. He commands all things by his word; he heals all by his word; he forgives sins with complete authority. With such an opportunity and such a healer, I should not be careless about my remedy. Consequently, I hasten to hand over the bond of my debts to the good pardoner. I know that I have sinned beyond measure, and there is nothing to compare to my debauchery; but all my sins are but a drop of water compared to his immovable compassion. I know this assuredly, that I only approach him, and at once he cleanses me from all my sins and misdeeds, banishing from me every wicked deed, since he is heavenly and without stain.' Behold, young man, I have said to you all the hidden things of my heart. Now give me the aromatic oil. You have hindered me long enough, forcing me to reveal who it is I am taking the aromatic oil to.”
The dialogue ends with the myrrh-seller giving her the oil and asking her to pray for him. By the end of the exchange with the myrrh-seller, he recognizes that she purchases the oil not for an earthly lover but for “a great heavenly lover.” The departing words of the myrrh-seller may come as a surprise, but they reveal his own change of heart: “pray for me!.”
After this dialogue with the myrrh-seller, the woman enters the house of Simon the Pharisee. As she proceeds to anoint Christ and wipe his feet with her hair, she silently prays:
Behold, O Master, you alone know how I dared to do this. Even though, O Lord, I am perfectly aware of my evil deeds, with great boldness I approach you, the undefiled one. Like the tax collectors who boldly came to you as supplicants, I fall down before you, O Master, desiring to be saved. Accept, O Christ, the streams of my tears. Accept, O Christ, the longing of my wretched soul. Consider my audacity as my entreaty, and my boldness as a perfect prayer; the aromatic oil will be my offering, O spotless one; and may my broken heart be for illumination.
Her prayer combines both heartfelt repentance and fervent desire. She continues with these words:
My soul is on fire; it has been wounded for your sanctification, O Lord! O spotless one, in your loving-kindness expel the foul stench of my transgressions. Drive away from me the wounds of my offenses and make me clean, washing me with my tears, O merciful one. Your grace has urged me to say these things before you, in order that I may be a model of goodness for the sinners you have come to save, O Master. Yea, I entreat you, O Savior, do not disregard the tears of my distressed heart; for I know that nothing is impossible for you, but everything is possible.
From these passages in the homily, we can begin to see why the story of the sinful woman has become so central to the services of Holy Wednesday. Her words are most well-known from the hymn of the nun Kassiani. Yet that beautiful hymn, full of compunction, gives little narrative details. The homily of Greek Ephrem completes the picture by revealing the narrative details of her story and why she is a model of repentance. Towards the end of the homily, the homilist speaks in praise of her:
O most faithful woman, how shall I praise the immense love you showed to achieve your goal? O woman, how shall I glorify the great desire of your perfect soul towards God? Who could so love as you have loved? Or who among mankind will be received as you have been received? The Saviour disposes all these things by his grace, for the salvation of the human race, to give those frightfully caught up in sins the boldness to come to repentance.
We know precious little about the authorship of Greek Ephrem’s homily, when it was first composed, preached, or committed to writing; yet we do know without a doubt how this homily was subsequently used liturgically. The homily circulated widely and is found in many manuscripts, largely because of its place within the liturgical celebration of the Wednesday of Holy Week. Early typika appoint a reading from Chrysostom, followed by a reading from Ephrem at the service of Orthros on Holy Wednesday. While these early typika mention this homily of Ephrem, by the time of the first printed Triodion the homily has fallen out of use. It remains, however, in the Slavic typikon, although in practice it is no longer read.
The Gospel of Luke gives us the story of the sinful woman. The liturgical hymns and homilies give us more of her story by expanding upon her back-story. These homilies and hymns fill in the gaps and explain who she was and where she came from. In developing this back-story, the hymn-writers and preachers highlight her boldness in seeking repentance, as well as her great love and desire for Christ. The sinful woman who approaches Christ to anoint him with precious oil, kiss his feet, and wipe them with her hair, serves as a model for the faithful. She embodies true repentance and perfect love, as she confesses her past misdeeds, radically alters her way of life, and draws near to Christ with fervor and heartfelt tears. The imagined words of the sinful woman can still give voice to the yearnings of the faithful who travel the course of Great Lent in preparation for Pascha. Her repentance stems from a desire to draw closer to Christ, to be healed by Christ, and ultimately to be transformed and refashioned in Christ. And that is what the season of Great Lent is all about.
 Lenten Triodion, p. 539