Beloved in Christ,
For the first four days of Holy and Great Lent we conduct the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete at our parish Chapel of Saint Nektarios from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. It is one of the most spiritually uplifting and inspiring in the Holy Tradition of our Church.
The Great Canon of Saint Andrew, Bishop of Crete, is the longest Canon in all of our divine services, and is associated with Great and Holy Lent, since the only times it is appointed to be read in church are the first four nights of Holy and Great Fast (Clean [Kathara Deftera] through Clean Thursday, at Great Compline [Apodeipnos], when it is serialized and at Orthros [Matins] for Thursday of the Fifth Week of Holy and Great Lent, when it is read in its entirety (in the latter service, the entire life of Saint Mary of Egypt is also read).
There is no other sacred hymn which compares with this monumental work, which Saint Andrew of Crete wrote for his personal meditations. Nothing else has it extensive typology and mystical explanation of the Holy Scripture, from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. One can almost say that this solemn hymn of the Church is an exposition of the Old Testament. Its other distinctive features are a spirit of solemn humility, hope in God's mercy, and exquisite Trinitarian Doxologies and hymns to the Mother of God in every Ode.
The holy Canon is a "dialogue between St. Andrew and his soul." The ongoing theme is an urgent exhortation to change one's life or in other words to repent. Saint Andrew always mentions his own sinfulness placed side by side to God's mercy, and uses literally hundreds of references to good and bad examples from the Old Testament and the New Testament to "persuade himself" to repent.
A Canon is an ancient liturgical hymn, with a very strict format. It consists of a variable number of parts, each called an "ode." Most common canons have eight Odes, numbered from one to nine, with Ode 2 being omitted. The most penitential canons have all nine odes. Some canons have only three Odes, such as many of the canons in the "Triodion" (which literally means 'Three Odes').
All Odes have the same basic format. An 'Irmos' begins each Ode. This is generally chanted, and each Irmos has a reference to one of the nine biblical canticles, which are selections from the Old Testament and New Testament, which can be found in an appendix in any complete liturgical Psalter (book of Psalms, arranged for reading in the services). A variable number of 'troparia' follow, which are short hymns about the subject of the canon. These are usually chanted, and not sung. After each troparion a "refrain" is chanted. At the end of each Ode, another hymn, called the 'Katavasiais' either the Irmos previously sung, or one like it is sung.
The troparia of the Great Canon in all its twelve Odes are usually chanted by the priest in the center of the church, with the choir singing the Irmos and Katavasiais. There are varying traditions about bows and prostrations. Some prostrate and some make the sign of the Cross and bow three times after the Irmos and each troparion.
General Themes of the Great Canon
How we should think about ourselves
Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my wretched life? What first-fruit shall I offer, O Christ, for my present lamentation? But in Thy compassion grant me release from my falls.
Desire to change--dialogue with the my soul
Come, wretched soul, with your flesh, confess to the Creator of All. In the future refrain from your former brutishness, and offer to the Almighty God tears of repentance and contrition.
Recognizing the inevitable Reality
The end is drawing near, my soul, is drawing near! But you neither care nor prepare. The time is growing short. Rise! The Judge is at the very doors. Like a dream, like a flower, the time of this life passes. Why do we bustle about in vain?
How to pray - Laments and Supplications to God
Thou art the Good Shepherd; seek me, Thy lamb, and neglect not me who have gone astray.
Old Testament and New Testament examples of righteousness and unrighteousness, for the purpose of emulation or avoidance.
Do not be a pillar of salt, my soul, by turning back; but let the example of the Sodomites frighten you, and take refuge up in Zoar. (Genesis 19:26)
I have reviewed all the people of the Old Testament as examples for you, my soul. Imitate the God-loving deeds of the righteous and shun the sins of the wicked.
The most important thing to know about the Great Canon
The Great Canon was written by a Saint of the Church to teach himself the orthodox way to live. We cannot benefit from it unless we make it a priority to stand in prayer, in the church, and listen to it, with a great desire and expectation for God's grace to teach us and heal us. Our Orthodox Christian theology is first and foremost--experienced and prayed, and not only "studied." [Source: Father Seraphim Holland]
THE LIFE OF SAINT ANDREW OF CRETE
Born in Damascus of Christian parents, he was dumb until the age of seven. When his parents took him to church for Holy Communion, the power of speech was given to him. Such is the divine power of Holy Communion. He went to Jerusalem at the age of fourteen and was tonsured in the Monastery of Saint Savva the Sanctified. In his understanding and ascesis, he surpassed many of the older monks and was an example to all. The Patriarch took him as his secretary. When the Monothelite heresy, which taught that the Lord Christ had no human will but only a Divine one, began to rage, the Sixth Ecumenical Council met in Constantinople in 681 AD, in the reign of Constantine IV. Theodore, Patriarch of Jerusalem, was not able to be present at the Council, and sent Andrew, then a deacon, as his representative. At the Council, St. Andrew showed his great gifts: his articulateness, his zeal for the Faith and his rare prudence. Being instrumental in confirming the Orthodox faith, St. Andrew returned to his work in Jerusalem. He was later chosen and enthroned as Archbishop of the Greek island of Crete. As Archbishop, he was greatly beloved by the people. He was filled with zeal for Orthodoxy and strongly withstood all heresy. He worked miracles through his prayers, driving the Saracens from the island of Crete by means of them. He wrote many learned books, poems, and canons, of which the best-known is The Great Canon of Repentance which is read in full on the Thursday of the Fifth Week of the Holy and Great Fast. Such was his outward appearance that, 'looking at this face and listening to the words that flowed like honey from his lips, each man was touched and renewed.' Returning from Constantinople on one occasion, he foretold his death before reaching Crete. And so it happened. As the ship approached the island of Mitylene, this light of the Church finished his earthly course and his soul went to the Kingdom of Christ, in about the year 740 A.D. [Source: The Prologue from Ochrid]
Please note: We as Orthodox Christians have an enormous spiritual Christian wealth that for some is still undiscovered. There is also a great liturgical tradition that has existed for centuries to serve the Orthodox Christian faithful to prepare spiritually and to be edified by it throughout the ecclesiastical year. There is much more than the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom conducted on most Sundays of the year.
If one is interested to learn more about the Faith there are many sources, books, etc. that are available to you today. The best way of course is attend and participate in the divine services of our Holy Church.
MY BLESSING TO ALL OF YOU
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God