First Week of Holy and Great Lent: The Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete

St. Andrew of Crete

St. Andrew of Crete

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.

FIRST WEEK OF HOLY AND GREAT LENT: THE CANON OF SAINT ANDREW OF CRETE
(Source: The Monastery of Axion Estin)

Introduction

The experience of Holy and Great Lent is a spiritual journey whose purpose is to transfer us from one spiritual state to another, a dynamic passage. For this reason the church commences Lent with the great penitential Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete. This penitential lamentation conveys to us the scope and depth of sin, shaking the soul with despair, repentance, and hope.

The only times it is appointed to be read in church are the first four nights of Great Lent (clean Monday through to clean Thursday and four sections of each ode are read at great compline) and at Matins (Orthros) for Thursday of the fifth week of Great Lent, when it is read in its entirety (in this latter service, the entire life of Saint Mary of Egypt is also read).

This complex poem (actually a chanted hymn) was written in the early 700's, and it picked up the adjective "great" for two reasons: it is extra-long (about 250 verses), and it is majestic. It is a liturgical poem consisting of nine odes. The great Canon was written by Saint Andrew of Crete, a bishop who was initially a monk in Jerusalem.

The whole Canon is a kind of "Walk Through the Bible". Saint Andrew begins with Adam and Eve and goes all the way through, exhorting himself by applying the stories and characters of the Holy Bible.

Reading the Canon helps us see how Christians in the Holy Land, 1,300 years ago, understood the Holy Scripture. It is a way to time-travel, and actually joins them in these ancient Christian devotions which are part of the dynamic life of the Church.

Father Alexander Schmemann says about the 'great Canon of repentance' that: "...with a unique art, Saint Andrew interwove the great biblical themes--Adam and Eve, Paradise and the Fall, the Patriarchs, Noah and the Flood, David, the Promised Land, and ultimately Christ and the Church--with confession and repentance. The events of sacred history are revealed as events in my life, God's acts in the past as acts aimed at me and my salvation, the tragedy of sin and betrayal as my personal tragedy. My life is shown to me as part of the great and all embracing fight between God and the powers of darkness which rebel against Him."

Of the Canon, Father Alexander, continues: "The Canon begins on a deeply personal note...One after another, my sins are revealed in their deep connection with the continuous drama of man's relation to God; the story of man's fall is my story".

Farther Alexander goes on to say that these stories from Holy Scripture are so much more than merely allegories. He reminds us that even though we are each unique persons, we are all moving through the same drama. We all face choices that through the ages others have faced before us and just as we must choose the sacred pathway to return to God so they had to choose; and in their choosing have much to teach us, to remind us, to reveal to us the tried and tested path to life. And it is in this way my own and deeply personal sin becomes the lens through which I can begin to grasp the real importance of His redemptive acts.

Part of the reasons that we are so vividly lukewarm in the faith, according to Father Alexander, is that we are too much concerned with things of the world, and we fail to remember the true heights from which we fell from grace as sons and daughters of Adam. This is something that is common to all mankind through the ages, but Father Alexander adds another element to this that brings it closer to the reality of contemporary life. He says: "Sin...is thought of primarily as a natural "weakness" due usually to a maladjustment, which has in turn social roots and, therefore, can be eliminated by a better social and economic organization. For this reason even when he confesses his sins, the modern man no longer repents...[he] shares his problems with the Confessor--expecting from religion some therapeutic treatment which will make him happy again and well-adjusted."

However, the great Canon, says Father Alexander, reintroduces us to the truth about sin and our sinfulness. It directs us back to the culture of Creation, Fall, and Redemption where we may have chance at once again to recall our experience and existential failures within our life, therefore repentance from sin is: "...the shock of man who, seeing in himself the "image of the ineffable glory," realizes that he has defiled, betrayed and rejected it in his life; repentance as regret coming from the ultimate depth of man's consciousness; as the desire to return; as surrender to God's love and mercy...[allows confession to become] meaningful only if sin is understood and experienced in all of its depth and sadness", as the rejection of communion with God.

Unfortunately, the culture in which we live excludes the concept of sin or distorts its notion in relation to the biblical and Christian tradition. For if sin is, first of all, humanity's fall from an incredibly high altitude, the rejection by humanity of its 'high altitude,' and 'calling', and defines a human not from 'above' (according to the image and likeness of God) but from 'below' (according to mere biology or physiology). Sadly this culture we live in thinks of human life only in terms of material goods and thus ignores the fact that human beings have a transcendental vocation.

The biblical and Christian tradition of sin has a depth and density which the culture in which we live is simply unable to comprehend and which makes confession of sins something very different from true Christian repentance. For this reason the great Canon reminds and teaches us that the ground that we need to walk in order to return to anything resembling the "image of the ineffable glory" is a field that we too often leave uncultivated and neglected. For most of us, locked into the familiarity of institutionalized, rule bound, and well worn praxis the simple words in the Canon which have so much to do with acts of self-denial and obedience, are a wilderness of exceptionally rich and unfamiliar ground, in the culture in which we live and which shapes our world-view.

A Summary and Brief Overview of the Main Theme of Repentance

This religious poem, beloved by the Eastern Orthodox Church, lets us overhear a conversation between Christ and an old man, who knows he will soon die and then face judgment on all the deeds of his life.

It is a dialogue between Saint Andrew and his soul. The ongoing theme is an exhortation to change the direction of one's life. Saint Andrew always mentions his own sinfulness placed in juxtaposition to God's mercy, and uses literally hundreds of references to good and bad examples from the Old Testament and New Testament to "convince himself" to repent.

Saint Andrew asks renewed forgiveness for his known sins and the light to uncover any hidden leanings still within him that, if uttered, would show how unfit he was to talk openly with his Lord. Christ, in words found in Holy Scripture, reminds St. Andrew of how all-inclusive the two commandments of love are, and how eager he is to greet prodigals when they return.

To many the mere thought of anyone having to face judgment will be terrifying. Imagine: an all-knowing God coming to question us, weak from age, about things we did in youth, middle age, and later years!

When, however, we hear this poem chanted in church, it will strike us as indeed grave, but still consoling because it shows Christ's never-failing desire for us to become one with Himself. He wants to talk personally with us in the way God did with Adam in the coolness of the afternoon.

Saint Andrew has a vivid sense of his own failings, but, despite this, the conversation between him and Christ is between people who love one another. Saint Andrew is talking to his soon-to-arrive judge, but he knows Him to be presently anxious to help him put on the wedding garment guests need to wear...

"...On the one hand, the beauty of the Canon is witnessed as a theological treatise which leads humanity to repentance--to refashion one's self and one's environment. On the other hand, it is an ecclesiastical liturgical act that transfigures one personally, and in turn the whole world is saved in the one person who returns to God.

Conclusion

The great Canon of Saint Andrew, Bishop of Crete, is the longest canon in all of our services and is associated with the initial stages of the spiritual journey of Holy and Great Lent. There is no other sacred hymn which compares with this monumental work, which Saint Andrew wrote for his personal meditations. Nothing else has its extensive typology and mystical explanations of the Holy Scripture, from both the Old and New Testaments. One can almost consider this hymn to be a "survey of the Old and New Testament". It's other distinguishing features are a spirit of mournful humility, hope in God, and complex and beautiful Trinitarian Doxologies and hymns to the Theotokos in each Ode.

Saint Andrew wrote the Canon to challenge the faithful spiritually. For Orthodox Christians, all spiritual exercises are designated to heighten our perception of basic reality: Sin is much more serious than we think, and God's forgiveness is much more vast than we think. Left to ourselves, we go around with Playskool impressions of what is at stake. So the goal of all spiritual disciplines are to cultivate charmolypi--to use a Greek term coined by the 6th century abbot of the monastery on Mt. Sinai, Saint John Climacus (of the Ladder). Charmolypi means the kind of penitence that flips into joyous gratitude, "joy-making sorrow," repentance shot through with gold.

There is a tone of awe and mystery that runs throughout its expression--a sense of seriousness and urgency for the restoration from the Old Adam to the New Adam based on the incarnation. The great Canon provides the faithful with the tools not only to approach God but more importantly, to unite with Him. Its main theme is: repentance, the return from sin or the unity of the cosmos and the human race--as one creation united in love--to its Creator. The great Canon invites the faithful to utilize all aspects of their existence including all their senses to communicate with their Creator, in order to live with Life itself. For this reason Saint Andrew's Canon contains both anthropological and cosmological themes, which include:

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"(Mon:1:1)

Desire to change - dialogue with the soul:

"Come, wretched soul, with your flesh, confess to the Creator of all. In the future refrain from you former brutishness, and offer to God tears of repentance" (Mon: 1:2)

Recognizing 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 abut in vain?" (Mon: 4:2)

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[Please note: Saint Andrew was born in Damascus about 660 A.D., and joined the Monastery of Saint Savva, outside Jerusalem, at age 15. His intelligence and holiness were evident, and he soon became secretary to the Patriarch of Jerusalem. He was a representative at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, and then manager of ministries to the poor, elderly, and orphans in Constantinople, and by the end of his life was Bishop of Crete.]

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MAY OUR LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST THROUGH THE HOLY INTERCESSIONS OF THE EVER-VIRGIN MARY THE THEOTOKOS AND SAINT ANDREW THE HOLY APOSTLE BLESS ALL OF YOU WITH A MOST BLESSED, HOLY, INSPIRING AND MEANINGFUL GREAT LENT.

KALI SARAKOSTI!

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God,

+Father George