A Song of Repentance: The Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete (Part III)


My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

[SOURCE: The Monastery of Axion Estin]

"Have mercy on me, O Lord, have mercy on me."

By joining our minds and hearts to these words as they are chanted, we may, with the help of the Holy Spirit, gradually come to see hidden failings in our life, and so more clearly recognize our need for forgiveness and purification. Because the Great Canon has the possibility of taking on real importance in our spiritual life, we should make an attempt to say exactly what kind of poem it is. A well-known theologian, Olivier Clement, calls it "A Song of Repentance."

As we grow older and have a wider experience of coping with the world, we will, as we pray, recognize how much we need to take a deeper look at what we are doing. We will discover unsuspected ways God's Commandments bear on what we are or not intent on doing. What loving God and our neighbor means will emerge gradually through prayer and meditation on Holy Scripture and our own mindset. Again, as this happens, our pleas for mercy and forgiveness will become more to the point and more earnest.

On each of the three Sundays before Holy Lent, the Church brings before us a plea for repentance, set to sacred music. Here are the words of that prayer:

"Open unto me, O Giver of life, the gates of repentance. For early in the morning My spirit seeks Thy Holy Temple, Bearing a temple of my body all defiled. But in Thy compassion cleanse it By Thy Loving-kindness and Thy mercy." (Lenten Triodion. p. 101)

Before Holy Lent, the Church tells us to pray for repentance, and then during the first four weeks of Lent, it has us listen to Saint Andrew's poem. This proximity of antiphon and poem suggest a connection between Holy Lent and the hope of repentance.

This theme stands forth in the opening words of Saint Andrew's poem:

"Come wretched Soul with thy flesh to the Creator of all. Make confession to Him, and abstain from thy past brutishness; And offer to God tears of repentance" (Canticle 12).

fter looking at these suggestive texts we need to ask what the term 'repentance' means. Saint Andrew seeks to answer this question by looking at an example:

"David once joined sin to sin, Adding murder to fornication; Yet then he showed at once a twofold repentance...David once composed a hymn setting forth, As in an icon the action he had done and he condemned it, crying 'Have mercy on me for against Thee only Have I sinned. O God of all, do Thou cleanse me" (Canticle VII 5).

A violent change came over David when he awoke to the fact that he had forsaken God. This response was not just another good action he did during his lifetime. It was a shaking experience and it profoundly changed his relationship with God.

To help us understand this let us look at more things Saint Andrew says:

"I fall down, Jesus, at Thy feet; I have sinned against Thee; be merciful to me Take from me the heavy yoke of sin, And, in Thy compassion, grant me tears of compunction. Enter not into judgment with me Bringing before me the things I should have done, Examining my words and correcting my impulses, But in Thy mercy overlook my sins, And save me, Lord Almighty." (Canticle, 1, last two verses)

Falling down before Christ because we realize we have sinned, asking Him for mercy, begging that the heavy weight of sin be removed, are all parts of repentance, and so is praying for grace to help us shed tears of remorse. David the King abjectly fell down before God as soon as he recognized that his actions toward Bathsheba and her husband betrayed his duty toward God. This discovery happened suddenly. David learned that God condemned his actions since by doing them he had forgotten God.

In his sinful state David no longer talked to God about his desires, his hopes, or his fears. Wrong choices had taken over his life. He had to spend his time thinking up excuses and lies to keep others from finding out what he had done. He did not even think of asking God for help. For the first time in his life, he has walked alone without the awareness of the presence of God. What God does or doesn't want was no part of his concern. This attitude was decidedly new for David. When he decided to kill Goliath, he did so because he thought it was wrong for an uncircumcised heathen to threaten those whom God had chosen for His own. Now only Bathsheba's beauty filled David's mind.

Saint Andrew accurately describes David's new experience as an awakening, and for that reason, the words of the poem tell us accurately what repentance is and they invite us to see how, like David, and, indeed, Saint Andrew, we can change our path even when we sin.

What is crucial here is the "one" of David's mind fixed on Bathsheba's beauty and the "later" of his repentance. Repentance is the decisive change that happened between these two moments. It took a special intervention from God for David to change. Repentance is something new and sudden like our being created or our Baptism.

(To be continued)

Divine service of the Canon of St. Andrew this evening at 6:30 p.m.   Chapel of Saint Nektarios


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


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

+Father George