The Great Canon of St Andrew

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The Great Canon of St Andrew (text here) is a long liturgical prayer that appears twice in the Lenten liturgy. We say the canon in four parts in the first four days of the Lent season, and then the whole thing is celebrated at once on the Thursday of the fifth week.

The great canon is the foremost prayer of repentance in the Lenten season. One distinctive feature of the text is is how so much of it covers passages in the Bible where God’s chosen people have fallen into sin, from the famous stories of Adam and Eve, David and Bathsheba, to obscure ones like that of Lamech. There are also plenty of mentions of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint famous for turning away from her wicked life.

I love this prayer. We get a reminder of how brutally honest the Bible can be about the failures of its greatest heroes, and how futile it is to try to attain moral perfection without Christ. The Great Canon does not allow us to look upon the stumbles of these people and think ourselves superior to them. Rather, in referencing these stories it forces us to confront the wickedness in our own life. Here are some typical lines:

Noah’s son Ham failed to conceal his father’s nakedness, and even dared to look at him in his shame. And you, my soul, in your treatment of your neighbour have imitated him.

Like the arrogant Israelites in the wilderness, you prefer the comforts of Egypt and unclean food to manna, the food sent from heaven.

Solomon was carried away by gratification of his lust. Alas, he who loved Wisdom now makes love to prostitutes and finds himself estranged from God. But in your misery though you have imitated him, O my soul, through your disgraceful love of luxury.

But given that so many people mistakenly think that Lent is about guilt and self-loathing, I will emphasize that the point of this prayer is to lead our heart towards repentance, and the larger theme is one of hope for the desperate who have nowhere else to turn but toward God.

With my whole heart, I cried unto the compassionate God,
and He heard me

I know You as a clam haven from the storm of transgressions, O Christ my Saviour. Protect and deliver me from the depths of my innermost sin and despair.

Accepting voluntarily to be nailed to a Tree, You accomplished salvation in the centre of the earth, O Creator. Eden, which had been closed to us is open again, and all of creation, both in heaven and on earth, is saved and worships You.

The Great Canon of St. Andrew is one of the most beautiful parts of the Orthodox Christian liturgy, and an indispensable feature of Lent. It compels us to turn away from judging the misdeeds of others, and to instead grieve deeply for our own brokenness. The canon reveals the hopelessness of our attempts to “fix” ourselves and instead draws us toward renewal in Christ Jesus, for salvation is found in no one else.

 

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Judging others

One of the most tiresome arguments that I have seen play out in Christian circles is about judging other people’s sins. There are a number of clear prohibitions in the Bible about judging other people’s sins, but often Christians feel compelled to dilute this teaching due to “practical” considerations.  We say that it is necessary to “hold people accountable”, or to “affirm God’s moral law”. According to this logic, to not judge people at all is to succumb to “moral relativism”.

Often the conclusion to this argument is that it is appropriate to judge other people’s sin, as long as the judgment is “appropriate”. This has always seemed to me a rather worthless qualifier.  After all, everyone who passes judgment on another thinks the judgment is “appropriate”!

A message that comes through loud and clear in the Orthodox lenten season is a prohibition against judging. The services of the Lenten Triodion (the lent liturgy book) begin with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which focuses on Luke 18:10-14:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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We also say this prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian in our morning prayers all throughout Lent. This prayer ends with these powerful line, spoken twice:

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own sins and not to judge my brother.

Every Sunday (even outside of Lent) we read this pre-communion prayer of St. John Chrysostom. It begins as follows:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief…

So every time I participate in the Sunday liturgy I declare myself “the chief of sinners”. Is this literally true? How do I answer that? How can I speculate on the spiritual state of another person? But if St. Paul can call himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) then so can I.

These liturgical elements hint at the reason why judging is dangerous. In Orthodox Christianity, we think of salvation not just as a moment in the past, but also in the present tense as a process of restoration, of a continual turning away from sin and towards God. The proper response to hearing the Gospel should be a revulsion at our own wickedness, and a desire to repent. What folly it is to look at the word of God and decide instead that it proclaims oneself righteous and condemns other people!

We learn a lot about the dangers of judging others in the words and deeds of early Christians, particularly the desert fathers and mothers. One very celebrated story is that of St. Moses the Ethiopian:

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
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There are also several warnings against judgment that affirm James 4:12, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” Consider this celebrated story about the desert fathers is that of St. Isaac the Theban:

An angel appeared before Isaac and presented before him the soul of someone who had just died.  “Here is the soul of a person you have judged,” said the angel.  “Where do you order him to be put, into the Kingdom or into eternal punishment?  Since you want to judge the just and the unjust, what do you command for this poor soul?”

Frightened beyond measure, Isaac spent the rest of his life praying with sighs and tears to be forgiven of this sin.  He had seen the seriousness of judging another.

What about practical considerations? Are there times when we are compelled to speak out when someone else is doing wrong? St. Macarius, another of these early Christian ascetics has this to say:
Abba Macarius went one day to Abba Pachomius of Tabennisi. Pachomius asked him, ‘When brothers do not submit to the rule, is it right to correct them?’ Abba Macarius said to him, ‘Correct and judge justly those who are subject to you, but judge no one else .
When these acts of correction are necessary, they are the purview of those in the church of spiritual authority. As a layperson, especially as one very new to the Orthodox faith, I can get along fine by not judging.

To end this post, I want to share a conversation I had with a priest in the United States. He was appointed to an “ecclesiastical court”, responsible for dealing with misconduct among clergy in his diocese. This priest is one of the wisest men I know, and yet he said he did everything he could to refuse this appointment. He said to be compelled to judge another person in this way (even in this very important and necessary role) put him in great spiritual peril, because he himself was an unworthy sinner. May all those few who are put in this unfortunate position have this same attitude!

Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann

The Lenten season is meant to kindle a “bright sadness” within our hearts. Its aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this relationship. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection.

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Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press) was a Godsend of a book. My first encounters with Orthodox lenten practice were rather challenging. There were all these dietary rules, new services,  new prayers, and new church music, and I did not know how to make head or tail of it. This book does a wonderful job explaining the meaning of the traditional lenten elements, and brought their beauty to life.

The book covers with great detail and clarity both the theological and practical aspects of doing Lent well. There are thorough explanations of the liturgical practices, line-by-line analyses of some of the prayers,  and down-to-earth advice on maintaining a correct attitude toward lent. Deep theological concepts are explained with remarkable simplicity. A layperson or a  non-Orthodox Christian will have no difficulty understanding most of the text.

This book should be compulsory reading for Orthodox Christians during this season. I also think it has some benefit for non-Orthodox who wish to understand the significance of traditional Lenten practice a little better. I will not talk at length about it, because the Antiochian Orthdox Archdiocese of North America has made long sections of the book available on their website for free.

May this “bright sadness” be kindled within your hearts in this season of Great Lent.