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


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


[SOURCE: The Monastery of Axion Estin]

A Summary and Brief Overview of the Main Theme of Repentance

This 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 urgent exhortation to change the direction 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 and New Testaments 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 Saint Andrew of how all-inclusive the two commandments of love are, and how great 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.

The old man (Saint Andrew) grieves over his past wrongdoing, but expressions of this concern are interspersed with memories of his Master trying to find lost sheep or search for lost coins that have the king's image stamped on them. Even more to the point, Christ condemns our failings because He wants us to be better and to live fully.

In listening to Saint Andrew, Christ hears an old man who has spent his life seeking to find what his Master wants. Now, in these last days, that old man is striving to know whether there are unknown commands he has not heeded or failings he has neither recognized nor confessed. From the bottom of his heart, he is begging his Lord to help him become a good disciple; he fears being disowned by someone he loves and whom he knows wants him not to fail.

There is no better way for any of us to learn what God wants of us than meditating on the stories of good and bad men spoken of in Holy Scripture. Saint Andrew has been pondering on them during all the years of his monastic life. Now, in old age, he is going over in his mind texts grown dear to him and peering into them in hope of discovering lessons he has missed.

He does not, like some scholar, speak in an orderly way of all parts of Holy Scripture simply because they are there to be read dispassionately. Instead, Saint Andrew will be listening for messages God set down for us to heed. In the light of those stories, there is one more chance to find out how he falls short of thinking and feeling as God does.

Memories of past blindness renew his worry about wrong desires that may still be lurking in some corner of his heart. Therefore he keeps asking for both forgiveness for the failings he knows about, and help for him to uncover still hidden ugliness.

The Great Canon shows us the thoughts of someone who reads the Holy Scripture in an effective way. He knows stories about God's interaction with outstanding men and women from the past, and, as he thinks about them, he uncovers their bearing on him. So his impending meeting with Christ is not something unlooked-for; on the contrary it is a culmination of many years spent talking with his Master about his actions and how to make them better.

The Holy Church invites us to listen to this poem during Great and Holy Lent firstly because we too will have to face judgment and secondly, Holy Lent is a time for readying ourselves to rise into the newness of life made possible by Christ's death and resurrection.

Our Holy Orthodox Christian Church punctuates verses of the poem by inserting familiar litanies and other prayers well known to the faithful. These additions give us time to pause and see how Saint Andrew's words relate to our life. Most importantly, the Holy Church, after each verse, adds a petition we will want to make more meaningful our own when we recognize some message in Saint Andrew's poem as addressed to us, something that will make us want to say:

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

(To be continued)


"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