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.