By Bishop Irenei of London and Western Europe

The following is the text of a talk given in Great Lent, 2017, at the Lenten Pastoral Clergy Conference of the Eastern American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The talk has been circulated widely on the internet over the years since through a transcript made of a recording at the conference; but we present here, with its author’s blessing, the complete text with notes and references.

In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!

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.

Come, wretched soul, with your flesh, confess to the Creator of all. In future refrain from your former brutishness, and offer to God tears in repentance.

—Great Canon of St Andrew, Ode 1.1, 2 [1]

Thus begins a familiar text, set before our ears in a familiar tradition of our Orthodox Church. As the Great Fast begins each year, its initial days are marked out by two defining features: the increased focus on the Psalter, which shall remain constant through the whole Forty Days; and the words of the Great Canon of St Andrew, which punctuate the evenings of the first four days, and then return in their full form in the Fifth Week.

There is something unique, something astonishing, about this text. However many times we may have heard or read it before, each time its words — and the special melodies, and the pious demeanour with which we experience them, with so very many bows — each time we experience these, they affect us in a remarkable way.

We sense, rightly, that in this text, which is not outwardly that markedly different from the hundreds of canons of our heritage, which we recite every single day of the year, we are nevertheless drawn into something unique. We are called into a reality that extends far beyond ourselves. From the opening words, sung by the choir to a special melody, we realise that what is coming is something extraordinary:

[God] is my Helper and Protector, and has become my Salvation. This is my God and I will glorify Him; my fathers’ God and I will exalt Him. For gloriously hath He been glorified.

—Ode 1, irmos.

My God. My fathers’ God [2]. My helper; my protector; my salvation. It is not lightly that a liturgical text makes such sweeping pronouncements on its contents — more or less, a whole confession of the God of our history, from our beginnings to our ends; from creation to redemption; from death, to life. A text that evokes the whole history of repentance in such poignant terms, only to culminate, in its penultimate petition, with the strange cry:

Do not require of me fruits worthy of repentance, for my strength is spent in me. Grant me ever a contrite heart and spiritual poverty, that I may offer these gifts to Thee as an acceptable sacrifice, O only Saviour!

—Ode 9.24.

How remarkable, how beautiful, that a text that begins with the charge to examine life — for the soul to make an accounting of herself, for a life to lean into the task of repentance — should conclude in this way; seeking at the outset to make a ‘first-fruit offering’, and concluding with the discovery of the only ‘acceptable sacrifice’ — brokenness, spiritual poverty — the heart can genuinely bring to its Creator.

The Great Canon of St Andrew truly is a remarkable text. While, as I have mentioned already, in structure it is like hundreds of others, yet it is somehow unique, unparalleled. While addressing themes that are absent from no theological or liturgical works — repentance, redemption, humility, divine mercy — it somehow touches on them in a way that affects us with unparalleled power.

Whence this strength, this unique character? Whence its central place in our Lenten life? Rather than simply commenting on various spiritual or theological themes in the Canon, I would like to look at it a little more deeply while we are together here; an approach borne of a personal conviction that this Canon teaches us — or ought to teach us — more than we generally give it credit for, even though we love it dearly.

If we carefully examine the Great Canon, not simply as a document but in the whole context of the Holy Church’s delivering of this hymn to us, and drawing us into encounter with it, we are able to see in it a guidepost for the very nature of the ascetical life; of our approach to the Holy Scriptures; and of the necessary work of our life of repentance, and the strengthening of our own hearts for the attainment of the bright glory of the Lord’s holy Resurrection.

The Canon and its Authorship

Let us start with a brief but necessary glance at the text proper, and its author.

The Great Canon, as is well known, was written in the first half of the eighth century by St Andrew of Crete (c. 650/660 – 4 July 726, or more likely 740 [3]). Born in Damascus, the future hymnographer was, perhaps by divine irony and certainly by a kind of prophecy, mute until the age of seven, when he was healed through the reception of Holy Communion. That experience stirred a zeal in the young boy’s life and a love for the Lord Who had given him his tongue, together with a deep respect for the Holy Scriptures in which he beheld that Lord presented to him; and some seven years later, at the age of fourteen, he travelled to Jerusalem and became a monk at the Lavra of St Savva the Sanctified.

Though the Patriarchal throne was vacant, the locum-tenens, Theodore, saw the monk’s potential and piety — indeed, he became well known for his abstemiousness, his chastity, and his doctrinal acumen — and made Monk Andrew patriarchal Archdeacon in the ancient city of Christ’s incarnate sacrifice. In this function he attended the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680-681) in Constantinople as one of a group of official representatives of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. There it was said of him (as recorded in his Life) that ‘the saint contended against heretical teachings, relying upon his profound knowledge of Orthodox doctrine.’

Later, following the conclusion of the council, with others in the Imperial City having recognised his skills, he was transferred from Jerusalem to Constantinople and became Archdeacon of Haghia Sophia; among the highest clerical offices in the whole of the Orthodox world, putting him at the side of Emperors and Patriarchs. In due course even this exalted archdiaconal rank was not sufficient, in the eyes of his superiors, for the pious Father Andrew, and under the reign of Emperor Justinian II he was appointed to the metropolinate of Crete (specifically, the see of Gortyna), by which title we continue to refer to him today.

Something particularly relevant for our understanding of the Canon, however, took place in the year 712. A robber council was held in which the decrees of the Sixth Ecumenical Council — where, again, St Andrew had been present in an official capacity — were rejected, the devil attempting to strike a blow against the Church’s confession of truth in the face of the heresy of monothelitism. St Andrew, for reasons we do not entirely understand, took part in this robber council, and endorsed its heretical rejections of Constantinople III [4].

What stirred St Andrew to this rebellion against the faith, we do not know. He was certainly not the only bishop to do so. What we do know is that the following year, in 713, he came to himself and repented of his error, and was received back into the fulness of Orthodoxy. From this point his life begins to be marked out by an excess of composition, mostly of hymns; and alongside other significant names such as St John of Damascus (7th c.) and St Germanos of Constantinople (7th-8th c.), St Andrew is generally given credit for being one of the ‘inventors’ of the particular form of a hymn known as a canon — a transformation of the older practice of simply singing the nine Biblical Odes at Matins, into a series of sustained reflections interjected as hymns between the verses of each (and which would eventually come to replace the singing of the Biblical Odes altogether, except during Great Lent).

And it is during this same period, of course, that he composes the most famous of all his hymns, his Great Canon. St Andrew wrote perhaps twenty-four canons in total (as is often the case with liturgical texts, the authorship of some is difficult to determine), but there is none quite like this particular composition. We must remember that great tragedy of his life, only some years before; we do not know the exact year of his death, but it is possible that he died in 726, which would mean he had fewer than fourteen years of life between his betrayal of the faith, of God, at the robber council, his subsequent repentance, and ultimately his repose.

“His canon of repentance was not the theoretical work of a writer seeking to explore themes he merely felt were important for dogmatic or principled reasons: it was the cry of an anguished heart.”

It is in that context — of a man who had ascended from the sorry lot of a mute child to the highest offices of Imperial Orthodoxy, from the status of an unknown to the pastor of thousands of souls, who had nevertheless denied his Saviour in the most vile of ways; yet had been rescued from his error by that same God and called back into His service — that St Andrew pens his most important text. This is to say, his canon of repentance was not the theoretical work of a writer seeking to explore themes he merely felt were important for dogmatic or principled reasons: it was the cry of an anguished heart. He had been lifted up by God far beyond anything he could have deserved or expected, and yet he had rejected Him. He had received grace upon grace, and yet he had spurned the Giver and Source of Grace. And then, in an act of redemption over which St Andrew clearly spent the rest of his life in awe, the same Lord he had rejected and spurned received him back.

I do not think it too dramatic to say that this experience radically altered St Andrew’s life, his thought, and his spiritual vision. Clearly he knew the teachings of the Church well, and for many years; one does not become an Archdeacon at the ‘Great Church’, an official representative at an Ecumenical Council, much less a Metropolitan Archbishop, without knowing the dogmas of the faith. He knew, or thought he knew, about the reality of sin, of rebellion, of repentance and redemption. Of course he did!

And yet in his experience of betrayal — of his betrayal of his own God — everything changed. St Andrew no longer knew about sin in terms of observation and intellectual comprehension: he knew it first and foremost, and forever after, by the drama of his fall. He no longer needed to intellectualise what it meant to feel the dung-pit of the Prodigal; he had cast himself into the dung of apostasy. He could taste that mud between his teeth. He no longer needed to hypothesise about the weeping of the soul in the peril of self-abandonment of God: those tears had become his own. He had felt that darkness. And he had felt, too, the unexpected mercy of God’s love. St Andrew did not need to speculate about how a soul must feel, standing before a just judgement with nothing good to offer in its defence: he had faced a foretaste of that judgement, he had been able to offer nothing but repentance; and the Lord had picked him up.

It was that tragedy that altered St Andrew’s heart. It created of a dogmatist, an hymnographer; of a career cleric, a witness — not just a preacher — of repentance. But that tragedy and its resolution led to another great tragedy in St Andrew’s life, one that he appears to have even less understood. One he could not explain. In the face of all the grace his soul had experienced, of all that he concretely, experientially knew, the inexplicable happened: his soul forgot. He did not forget, not intellectually, not historically; but that was precisely what tormented St Andrew. He could remember his fall, he could remember the Lord’s mercy; and yet deep within him, in the inner recesses of his heart, he could not remember that repentance. He could tell himself to repent, but his soul did not seem to listen.

Seeing this in reference to biblical lives (a trait we shall come back to later), St Andrew realised that while others repented and were altered forever, to the depths of their soul, he did not:

Running through all who lived before the Law, my soul, you have not been like Seth, nor imitated Enos, nor Enoch by translation, nor Noah. But you are seen to be bereft of the life of the righteous.

—Ode 2.31; cf. Genesis 5.

Or, in comparing the cleansing of the soul following God’s mercy to the eradication of memories of Egypt amongst those who were led by God out of that bondage into a new land:

You, wretched soul, have not struck and killed your Egyptian mind, like the real Moses. Say then, how will you dwell in that desert solitude where the passions desert you through repentance?

—Ode 5.9; cf. Exodus 2.12.

And so the Great Canon is composed in response to this new tragedy in St Andrew’s heart. He has learned what repentance means, what it has to mean; and as he feels his soul numbed by insensitivity, by lack of perception, by a dismissal of memory, he calls her back to what is truly needful. It has been said that the approximately 250 verses of this canon (the precise numeration varies slightly in the manuscripts) — certainly rendering it the most lengthy of all our extant canons — were composed as a ‘personal reflection’ on the saint’s part, but I have always found this slightly misleading. The hymn was composed out of spiritual necessity. He needed to stir his soul back to life — and with her, surely, the souls of his flock, whom he knew must suffer similarly. If such a return to life did not become his soul, he knew what hell awaited him. So he crafted this dialogue between himself and his soul, with God watching on, that before his time ran out he might come to himself again, in the depths of his heart.

Brief is my lifetime and full of pain and wickedness, but accept me in penitence and call me to the awareness of Thee!

—Ode 4.1.

The Great Canon is truly a cry. A cry of a heart that speaks to all hearts; a cry to finish the course before the world finishes us. A cry to see the world, and our selves, as they really are — and not to remain stagnant any more.

The Place of the Canon in Our Lenten Practice

Before I turn to the key themes within the canon that I wish to address, a brief word should be said on how the Church brings this Great Canon to us, and brings us to the Great Canon. We encounter it, as I have said already, in the first four days of Clean Week (divided into four sections, the precise arrangements of which are a remarkable example of ecclesiastical abbreviation and are not at all obvious in their structure [5]), and then again in its full form on the Thursday (in practical usage, Wednesday evening) of the Fifth Week. These prescriptions are laid down for us in the latest version of the Lenten Triodion (триодь постная), reflecting the significant alterations to Lenten practice that took place chiefly in the ninth and twelfth centuries, with additions through the fourteenth [6]. In earlier versions of the Triodia, the thematic span of the Fast was organised rather differently (for example, the first Sunday of the Fast was dedicated to the Holy Prophets; the Good Samaritan was the theme of the Fourth [7]), the Scriptural readings throughout Lent were different, and the additional customs varied. In the form that was ultimately settled upon, which was largely a monastic ustav for the Fast (and largely the work of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople), the Great Canon came to be an integral part of the Lenten podvig on the days we have indicated.

This means, in essence, that the Church has deemed the Canon the appropriate text for two phases of our Lenten repentance: its initiation, and the push towards its summation. By it we enter into the spirit of the Fast at the outset; and in the Fifth Week we tie it to the reading of the Life of St Mary of Egypt, linking her example of a repentance that ‘endures to the end’ to this text which speaks to what real repentance must truly be.

And the Church not only prescribes when we shall encounter the Great Canon, but how. It is recited as a kliros text; that is to say, it is not proclaimed from the amvon the way we proclaim the anathemas or even regular sermons, but it is read from the kliros — though by tradition we move the kliros to the middle of the Temple. Monks wear just their mantias, white clergy just their ryassas, all with the minimal liturgical vestry required in our custom of a priest performing any office (that is to say, the epitrahil [8]). We stand barren in the middle of the Temple, as the soul stands barren in the middle of our hearts. We close the Royal Gates, to remind ourselves of the separation we are meant to feel. We keep the space dark, usually lit only by the candles in our hands, making visual the mystery of the darkness of sin, but never letting us despair that the Light of Christ is not with us.

And we bow, and we bow, and we bow. Three times per each of the 250 troparia, down to the earth, for some 750 such movements prescribed in addition to all the usual prostrations of the Lenten service [9]. The Church teaches us to do this, and it is important that we do it, because she preserves for us the ancient wisdom and experience of the Fathers: that where our minds may not go of their own accord, much less the heart, they can be led through the disciplined movements of the body.

The Location of the Canon in the Divine Services

Also significant is the way the Great Canon is inserted into the Lenten services themselves. In Clean Week its four segments are inserted into the evening service of Great Compline, just after Psalm 69, at the beginning of the service [10]. We might take note of the most obvious aspect of the integration of the Canon with the service at this point: The Psalm that precedes it is one that implores God’s help (O God, be attentive unto helping me; O Lord, make haste to help me! . . . I am poor and needy; O God, come unto mine aid) and the three that immediately follow remind us of the fact that the Lord listens to our supplications (When I called upon Thee, O God of my righteousness, Thou didst hearken unto me . . . Psalm 4.1; Have mercy on me Lord, for I am weak . . . Psalm 6.1; As for me, I have hoped in Thy mercy; my heart will rejoice in Thy salvation . . . Psalm 12.5); and then, after additional Psalmody, we are brought to the central hymn of Compline: ‘God is with us!’ (съ нами Богъ). Over and again this word of consolation and triumph is sung to the heart that has just heard so much of trial, so much of weakness, so much of struggle. We could be daunted by the grief of our sin, but God is with us. We could sink into despondency through the dark reality of our rebellion, but God is with us. We could lose all hope, we could be conquered by our frailty, but God is with us! It is a sorrowful thing to observe, when in some places the reading of the Great Canon on these evenings is the only portion of the service done carefully, with full attention, the remainder of Compline being swiftly, sometimes inattentively read. We must remember that the Canon’s theology, its spirit and its ascetical witness, culminate in what follows, particularly in the singing of ‘God is with us’.

“Over and again this word of consolation and triumph is sung to the heart that has just heard so much of trial, so much of weakness, so much of struggle. We could be daunted by the grief of our sin, but God is with us. We could sink into despondency through the dark reality of our rebellion, but God is with us. We could lose all hope, we could be conquered by our frailty, but God is with us!

When we encounter the Great Canon in Fifth Week, it is incorporated into the evening celebration of Matins. There it follows the reading of Psalm 50, the great ‘psalm of repentance’, which itself has been made to follow the reading of the first portion of the Life of St Mary of Egypt. But even on this evening, the Great Canon is not read straight through. After the Third Ode comes the remainder the Life of St Mary, and we begin to interject the two beautiful three-ode canons, one of St Joseph the Archbishop of Thessaloniki (762 – 832) and the other of St Theodore (759-826) — the two brothers (both in spirit and in the flesh) of Studion who composed the three-ode canons of the Triodion [11]. Each of these odes, since they relate to Thursday’s apostolic focus in general, are dedicated to the Twelve Apostles; and these canons will, as is usual, also appear at the Eighth and Ninth Odes. After the Sixth Ode we insert the Beatitudes, which in current practice normally do not feature in this place; and between their verses we add troparia of repentance — which follow the Canon’s practice of linking these themes to biblical examples. If we stand back and examine this unique arrangement, we see that the Church has presented the repentant spirit of the Great Canon as the ‘connecting link’ between the life of one of her greatest ascetics, the Apostolic witness of Christ’s redemptive work, and the Saviour’s own proclamation of the blessedness of those who will inherit His Kingdom. St Mary’s life can seem stark, barren, to one who reads it without wisdom; but linked to the Canon we are able to see, as it were, into her heart and find the spiritual realities — anything but barren — that led her into her desert repentance. The longed-for redemption of the Canon is tied to the testimony of the Holy Apostles, that God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3.17). And when the Canon itself speaks directly of the hope that will come, the Church links this to Christ. It is telling that the final regular tropar of the Sixth Ode reads:

I am the coin with the royal image which was lost of old, O Saviour. But light the lamp, Thy Forerunner, O Word; seek and find Thine image.

—Ode 6.16; cf. Luke 15.8.

And it is this verse that we follow (after the usual small litany and the kondak) with the insertion of the Beatitudes. St Andrew hopes for the salvation that will be brought by the One the Forerunner proclaims; and immediately we hear that One speak of the Kingdom that is the redemption of all transgression. ‘In Thy Kingdom remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom . . .’

All of this goes to show that this text is not just to be read, or heard: it is to be encountered. We are called to experience it. We are called to experience the grief and the heartache of the recognition of our lack of repentance (hence the liturgical setting, the ascetical acts of prostrating ourselves again and again) — not emotively or emotionally, but dispassionately, taking stock of our selves as we really are; but only within the embrace of the Church’s abiding confidence in the mercy of Him who takes away the sin of the world (John 1.29).

The Canon as Ascetical Guidepost

In this spirit, in this context, St Andrew is given reign to speak to us. But, ironically, this is not what he seems to wish — and this is certainly not the way his hymn works. It doesn’t speak to us; it aims to speak for us. Or perhaps even that is slightly inaccurate: its deepest aim is to draw us into its spirit, so that its words become our own. Just as the prayers contained in the Molitvoslov are meant to teach us the way a heart should cry to God in daily prayer, to instruct us in the kinds of words our own hearts should issue forth, so the Great Canon speaks within us as we ought to speak. It gives us, as if on a kind of loan, the words that would emerge from within each of our own hearts, if only we would take seriously what repentance truly is; but which we so often do not find brimming from our lips, deadened to this spiritual reality by our laxity, worldliness, and distraction.

Thus, the Church seems to say, the Great Canon is written and read in the first-person, not simply for St Andrew, but for us.

Where shall I begin to lament . . . (Ode 1.1)

I am the one who by my thoughts fell among robbers . . . (Ode 1.4)

I am the coin with the royal image which was lost of old . . . (Ode 6.15)

The alabaster jar of my tears, O Saviour, I pour out on Thy head as perfume . . . (Ode 8.17)

I feel I must dwell on this first-person reality for just a moment, since as all clergy and attentive laity know, this is a regular feature of our Divine Services. Though we often speak historically, of the past, in our hymns very regularly we find our liturgical experience set into this first person. I see the Crucifixion of Christ, and what’s more, I see it today. I behold the empty tomb. I witness the Resurrection.

And thus, in this Great Canon, I sing to my soul, through the words spoken by the priest — St Andrew’s own words. And while this is always a powerful element of our prayer, it is perhaps nowhere more so than in this hymn; for it is precisely this that gives the Great Canon that tangible sense of potency we mentioned at the outset. Because I am given to sense, if only for a few minutes of my attentive participation, something I long for; something my heart and soul crave. Though I may not live my life in a worthy, genuine repentance, nevertheless something within me longs to — and by being drawn into this hymn of experience, I for a moment am given to taste, first-hand, of the glories of that life I so often neglect on my own.

In this worldly life, people will often expend great energy, time and money to have a ‘first-hand taste’ of things they would do in full if they could. Men will climb false walls to experience a taste of the thrill of scaling hundred-metre cliffs; they will pay to go into wind chambers to experience a taste of the free-fall of the skydive they may never make; they will go into flight simulators to taste the experience of flying a jet over the clouds. But far deeper than these worldly longings are the needful desires of the soul: to live real repentance, to truly experience divine mercy. And for a few moments, this Great Canon permits the soul of that experience: she ‘tastes’, she can for a time touch, the blissful reality of genuine, heartfelt, deepest repentance — and that flavour deeply changes her. It is for this reason that the Great Canon, though filled with so much dismal and discouraging imagery, has the effect of leaving those who experience it in the Divine Services filled with a sense of lightness, even of dispassionate joy. We touch, for a time, on realities that we fail truly to seek in our lives; and the fact that we can taste them, that we can experience them, infuses the soul with a new zeal and the desire to make a real beginning in the spiritual life.

Critical Points in Ascesis, As Witnessed Through the Great Canon

In this context, St Andrew provides us with access to a series of critical points on our necessarily ascetical life. Our vision must change if we are to take hold of the reins of repentance; and that change must be made ‘by force’, as the Lord Himself said is the trait of those who gain His Kingdom (cf. Matthew 11.12). That wrestling, that forceful change of mind, heart and life, must convert our soul to see certain realities to which we are normally blind.

I have time today to dwell on only a few, so I will select three of the ascetical themes in the Great Canon that I feel are of the most significance:

(1) First and foremost, that my sin is greater than any other’s; and by their lesser sins, I see my greater ones. This is summed up in St Andrew’s words in Ode 3: ‘I alone have sinned against Thee, sinned above all men; O Christ my Saviour, spurn me not’ (Ode 3.5). Or but a few troparia later: ‘There is no one who has sinned among men whom I have not surpassed by my sins’ (Ode 3.10). Or in the Fourth Ode: ‘There has never been a sin or act or vice in life that I have not committed, O Saviour. I have sinned in mind, word and choice; in purpose, will and action, as no one else has ever done’ (Ode 4.4, emphasis mine).

Some consider this degree of self-deprecation to be excessive — ‘have I really committed murder? have I genuine blood on my hands, as did others of old? am I really worse than Cain?’ — but St Andrew teaches that unless we are able to see that even the greatest of sinners demonstrate the shadows of virtues that we do not ourselves possess, unless we are genuinely to place ourselves below them and see in their vile acts not the ‘other’, but the un-admitted and un-acknowledged realities of what is scandalously familiar in us, we will never be able to learn from them that which matters for our redemption.

Here is a typical example in St Andrew’s words:

David once joined sin to sin, for he mixed adultery with murder, yet he immediately offered double repentance. But you, my soul, have done things more wicked, without repenting to God.

—Ode 7.5

Again we ask, ‘Have I committed murder and adultery?’ Perhaps not in the manner King David did; but the Saviour has taught us deeper meanings to both sins — for whoever hateth his brother is a murderer (1 John 3.15; cf. Matthew 5.22); and whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5.28). Let us not see only fleshly, outward things, and use them as excuses to deny the spiritual sin within us. I may not have killed; but this does not mean I am not a murderer. I may not have committed marital infidelity; but this does not mean I am not an adulterer.

And yet, St Andrew’s point is not simply to force us to acknowledge that we have done grievous things, even more grievous than St David, but to help us to see the far deeper tragedy: that he genuinely repented of his sins, while I have not. The great king made two mistakes, mistakes of the flesh, and altered the whole of his life in response; yet I pile sin upon sin, spiritual and far more serious than his, and what does my barren soul do? It makes excuses, it pretends it was justified, it downplays its wrongdoing and explains it away.

Again and again this theme is repeated. Just one more example suffices: 

Having emulated Uzziah, my soul, you have his leprosy in you doubled. For you think disgusting thoughts and do outrageous things. Let go of what you are holding and run to repentance.

—Ode 8.7; cf. 4 Kings 15.5; 2 Chronicles 26.19

This leads St Andrew ultimately to pen what is one of his most startling, significant verses:

Christ became man and called to repentance robbers and harlots. Repent, O my soul! The door to the Kingdom is already open, and the transformed Pharisees, publicans and adulterers are entering it ahead of you!

—Ode 9.5; cf. Matthew 21.31; 11.12

For all that we may claim piety or virtue, faithfulness or strictness, here we behold the reality: that those whom the world might say — or in our debased pride, we might be tempted to say — are far ‘worse’ than us, these very ones are entering the Kingdom before us. We spend so much time during the Great Fast focusing on these very categories, these types, of people: the Pharisees, the publicans, the grievous sinners. ‘Let us flee from the proud speaking of the Pharisee . . .’ [12]; ‘Let us hate the boastful words of the Pharisee . . .’ [13]. And yet for all that we see in the image of the pharisee that we are meant to avoid, here the real truth of the matter: that such ones are entering the Kingdom while I am not, for they ultimately repent, and I stay stalwart in my sin or deadened to a real repentance.

(2) A second ascetical point in the Great Canon is that the sin in my life, for all its weight and enslaving force, is not to be identified with my real humanity, my created being. The despondency that too often follows upon the the realisation of sin — especially when that realisation comes through purely secular or heterodox means — comes in large part with the confusion, or conflation, of my sin with my nature. This is amongst the greatest sorrows of Protestant and some forms of Roman Catholic departure from Orthodox teaching: that sin comes to be seen as a constituent part of our ‘fallen nature’, in which it cannot be separated from who I am. But if what and who I am is sinner and sinful, what hope of transformation? What purpose to ascetical life at all?

The Great Canon, in concert with Holy Fathers before and after, speaks in entirely different terms. One of its earliest metaphors for our sinful condition is that of nakedness:

I have lost my first-created beauty and comeliness; and now I lie naked, and am ashamed.

—Ode 2.11

My nature is naked. The manner in which it ought to be clothed — holiness, incorruption, sanctity — has been cast aside; that image of God’s very being is no longer visible in me.

But what is lost is not destroyed, it is buried:

I have buried with passions the beauty of the original image, O Saviour. But seek and find it, like the lost coin.

—Ode 2.21; cf. Luke 15.8

This is essential, because what is buried can be dug up; just as a naked man can be clothed. His nakedness is not an alteration of his being: it is a condition of his existence. And this is precisely how the Church teaches us to regard our sin. It fundamentally alters how we exist: naked, we become frail, susceptible to the winds and rains and snow, icons of something other than perfect holiness. We suffer. We die. But there is always the hope to be clothed again; to un-bury that pristine image.

St Andrew likes, in this light, to speak of sin as a kind of ’new clothing’, wretched in nature. Rather than the virtuous clothing of piety, we are covered in new garments of shame.

I am wrapped in a garment of shame as with fig leaves, in reproof of my selfish passions. (Ode 2.13)

I am clad in a coat that is spotted and shamefully blood-stained by the flow of my passionate and pleasure-loving life. (Ode 2.14)

And the result of such ‘new clothing’ is that we are burdened by it. Weighed down.

All the demon-chiefs of the passions have plowed on my back, and long has their tyranny over me lasted. (Ode 2.10; cf. Psalm 128.3)

I have fallen under the burden of the passions and corruption of matter, and from then until now I am oppressed by the enemy. (Ode 2.16)

(3) These observations lead into the third critical, ascetical point in the Great Canon: that the life of repentance must be a life of action. Modern emotionalism has led to the emotionalisation of both sin and repentance: sin is what makes me ‘feel bad’, and repentance is a change of feeling, of thinking, so that I will think differently. I will be sorry. I will pledge myself to think and feel in a new way.

If St Andrew speaks about emotion or ‘feeling’ in the Great Canon, it is only with regard to engendering the necessary pin-prick of compunction in the heart. To cause the sorrow of grief to spur us to action. But it is on precisely that, the action, that he dwells without cessation.

Stagnancy kills repentance. Those who stand idle, or worse, look backwards, are not repenting; they are dying.

Do not be a pillar of salt, my soul, by turning back; but let the example of the Sodomites frighten you, and take refuge up in Zoar.

—Ode 3.21; cf. Genesis 19.26

This image is repeated many times. With it, the focus on real ascesis as a race — something to be run:

Run, my soul, like Lot from the fires of sin; run from Sodom and Gemorrah; run from the flame of every irrational desire.

—Ode 3.22; cf. Genesis 19

This is another among the many reasons that the Church has chosen this canon to be so central to our liturgical life during Great Lent: because it does not simply talk of repentance emotionally or theoretically. Its fundamental command to each of us is that repentance must be active. It must be the work of a life lived differently; of a race run faithfully, without tiring; of an ascesis that is fired by the conviction that the harsh clothing of sin can be cast off, that the discarded garments of grace can be restored, and that the beast of the passions hunched over our backs can be slaughtered by the power of the Holy Trinity, that God’s image may be renewed in us.

The Great Canon as Spiritual Witness

Before I draw to a close, I would like to say a few words about the Great Canon as a witness to the Orthodox approach to the Holy Scriptures. This text is, after all, and as we have already seen in numerous ways, remarkably Scriptural, having earned the nickname that is almost spelt out in the Canon itself, of being a ‘survey of the Old and New Testaments’ [14]. But I would like to point out that what is of supreme value in the Canon, in this regard, is not simply that it quotes the Scriptures at almost every verse; but rather, that it demonstrates the pinnacle of the Orthodox understanding of how the Holy Scriptures are to be ‘interpreted’ by the pious heart.

This Diocese [15] harbours the main seminary of our Church, which many of you have attended, so I know that I can make passing reference, without too many blank stares, to the well-known ancient ‘schools’ (so-called) of Scriptural interpretation, known as the Alexandrian, with its emphasis on ‘allegorical’ readings of the Scriptures; and the Antiochian, with its preference for ‘literal’ readings. That neither of these ‘schools’ actually existed, as such, notwithstanding, the fact is that we know there have always been a variety of ways of studying our sacred texts, of reading them, of interpreting them. And we know, too, of many newer ways that have emerged over the centuries of Christian dissolution outside the Church: the once much-tauted ‘Source-Critical Method’ for a time favoured by Protestant scholars and since largely fallen into abandon; or the nonsensical ‘Historical Jesus’/‘Jesus Seminar’ approach that was rejected by everyone after a flash-in-the-pan appearance in the 1980s.

While the Orthodox Church certainly rejects these aberrational ways of trying to read the Scriptures, she has always acknowledged — and we see readily in the writings of our Fathers — that multiple ways, or styles, of reading and interpretation can be beneficial for the soul. The Scriptures can be studied for their literality, for their spiritual message or allegory; these can be mingled together, they can be held separate. So long as such study is done within the embrace of the Church, guided by her rather than swaying away from her and becoming led by non-ecclesiastical principles, wisdom can come.

But what all such approaches have in common is that they are means of study. The text is a text; it is something other. It is examined, ruminated upon, interpreted. And this is good; but it is not all, and it is not the highest way.

“In the Great Canon of St Andrew we encounter Scripture, not studied, but appropriated. This, in our Orthodox life, is the highest form of encounter of the Scriptures; when they cease to be something ‘studied’, and instead are transformed into the cry of our own hearts. The story of the Scriptures is the story of my life.”

In the Great Canon of St Andrew we encounter Scripture, not studied, but appropriated. This, in our Orthodox life, is the highest form of encounter of the Scriptures; when they cease to be something ‘studied’, and instead are transformed — not by intellectual endeavour but by a deep, interior ascesis — into the cry of our own hearts. The story of the Scriptures is the story of my life. Though they each retain their historical realities and significance, the Church leads us to discover that the individuals of the Old Testament, like the New, live in a manner that is revelatory to my heart. David repents to show me repentance. The command to clear the Promised Land of the Canaanite tribes is a command for my ascesis, to clear the promised land of my heart of all sin and passion. The parting of the Red Sea is the path of my salvation, demonstrating how, and by what means (namely, Holy Baptism), I shall be led out of bondage and into the fulness of life.

And so I look at their story, and see my own. Abel, Cain, Noah, Uzziah, Lamech, David, Soloman, Pharaoh, Rachael — they are all me. Their stories are mine, at least in part; and again, this is not because they are mere metaphors or (God forbid!) non-historical allegories. But the ‘one Body’ of Christ extends across the whole of history, and I gradually learn that my life is tied to theirs, and theirs reveals mine. I can learn from their mistakes, because they are alive in my heart. And I can learn from their repentance, because that, too, is available to me — if only I would rise up and act.

Time does not permit me to say more about the Scriptural significance of the Great Canon. Allow me just to make this one statement: that in my estimation, every Orthodox course on the study of the Sacred Scriptures should have this hymn as its first text — before students even open the Bible itself. For here we have the Scriptures presented in the mind of the Church, through her heart, with her voice. This is one of St Andrew’s most remarkable accomplishments. Here we are shown how to read, how to hear, and what to receive. If the Great Canon is the first text we read (or more properly, liturgically experience) in the study of Scripture, when we then open the Bible and turn to the first verse of Genesis, or Matthew, everything that follows will appear to us differently.


It is time to conclude. This canon could inspire us to speak and reflect for hours, but our schedule will not permit it. Let us end by once again looking at the opening irmos of the Great Canon, which I quoted at the outset:

[God] is my Helper and Protector, and has become my Salvation. This is my God and I will glorify Him; my fathers’ God and I will exalt Him. For gloriously hath He been glorified.

This is the fervent conviction of St Andrew, and it is the ceaseless confession of our Holy Mother Church: that the God of our Fathers is glorified. And in a beautiful way, every verse of the canon that follows this opening phrase reveals how He is glorified. It is not in diadems of power or reign or fame or exultation. God is glorified in these things, yes, of course. But He is ‘gloriously glorified’ above all in the repentance of His children. In their coming to Him with ascetical hearts set to become new lives.

God’s truest glory is thus man’s sweetest hope. What He seeks and what we seek — or ought to seek — are the same. The shepherd’s greatest joy is in finding his lost sheep; and the wayward sheep’s truest sweetness is in again beholding the face, and hearing the voice, of its master. St Andrew reminds of us precisely this:

Thou art the Good Shepherd; seek me, Thy lamb, and neglect me not who have gone astray. (Ode 3.6; cf. John 10.11-14)

Thou art my sweet Jesus, Thou art my Creator; in Thee, O Saviour, shall I be justified. (Ode 3.7)

The race of repentance is not over. It is happening now. It will happen until the day of your death. And you must run it well, broken in heart yet joyful in spirit; for at the end of this race is the image that was lost, the glory that was shunned, and the gates of the Kingdom that have already been opened to repentant sinners, and may yet be opened unto us.

I will conclude, not with the words of St Andrew, but those of St Theodore the Studite, who, as I mentioned, is the author of one of the three-ode canons inserted into our Lenten cycle, and of that which we intermingle with the Great Canon on the soon-to-come Wednesday evening of Fifth Week. Referring the repentant life to the Apostolic witness, he says the following words:

O God-chosen band of the Twelve Apostles, offer now especially prayer to Christ, that we may all finish the course of the Fast, completing the prayers with compunction, and zealously practising the virtues, that we may attain to see the glorious Resurrection of Christ our God, offering Him glory and praise.

—Sedalion in Tone 8, after Ode 3



[1]For the majority of the quotations of the Great Canon in this talk, I will be reading from the translation of Archimandrite Lazarus, found in The Great Canon: The Work of Saint Andrew of Crete (Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, 1967), as this tends to follow the Church Slavonic with which most of us are familiar; however, there are occasions where this translation requires modification or alteration, sometimes in light of variations between the Slavonic edition and the Greek original. I will make note of these as they occur. Further citations of the Great Canon will simply indicate the Ode and tropar, with numeration as found in the Jordanville edition. ↑ Back to text ↑

[2]Here and in my quotation of the irmos, above, I have rendered the plural possessive (“my fathers’ God”, or “the God of my fathers”) rather than the singular (“my father’s God”). Among English editions, the former is found in Metropolitan Kallistos’ translation in TheLenten Triodion (Faber and Faber, 1978), and the latter in the translation of Archimandrite Lazarus, already mentioned. It is a curiosity of the Church Slavonic translation of the Greek original, that the plural in Greek (ὁ Θεὸς τῶν πατέρων μου) is made into the singular in Slavonic (Богъ Отца моего). I have followed the Greek in this instance. ↑ Back to text ↑

[3] There are varying accounts of the year of his repose, though the date of 4th July is consistent. ↑ Back to text ↑

[4] A copy of the Acts of Constantinople III was drawn up by Deacon Agatho, likely containing the most authentic and robust accounting of its proceedings; but these were burnt by Philip. Emperor Justinian II was murdered in Bithynia by the Army, in rebellion, and Bardnese was proclaimed Emperor by them, taking this name of Philip for himself. He destroyed by fire Deacon Agatho’s accounting of the Council, kept in the imperial palace, and convened the conciliabulum of 712 in order to continue his rebellion against the anti-monothelete teachings of the Ecumenical Council. The conciliabulum formally rejected Constantinople III and its decisions, as well as deposing the Patriarch of Constantinople. Participants in the robber synod included our St Andrew of Crete, together with Germanos of Cyzicus and others. Fortunately, the effects of this conciliabulum are short-lived, and order was restored within a two-year span. See Knox, History of the Councils, vol. 5, pp. 257-8. ↑ Back to text ↑

[5] It is sometimes assumed that the division into the four quarter-length portions used on Monday to Friday of Clean Week are simply the extraction of a quarter of each ode for each day; and while in basic principle this is what is done, in actual fact the contents of those smaller sections are considerably reorganised and the troparia re-numerated, with respect to how they exist in the Canon in its full form. ↑ Back to text ↑

[6] In general there is agreement amongst all historians that the ninth century saw the formation of the Lenten Triodion into the basic form we have now, while the tenth through fifteenth were centuries of further refinements and additions. See The Lenten Triodion pp. 29-43. ↑ Back to text ↑

[7] For more on the history of the ancient triodia for Great Lent, see J. Getcha (now Archbishop Job of Telmessus), The Typikon Decoded (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012), pp. 38 ff. ↑ Back to text ↑

[8] Though in other liturgical practices, such as that of the Moscow Patriarchate, it is not unusual for bishops reading the Great Canon to do so in their mantia alone, without epitrahil and small omofor, which is the practice of the ROCOR. ↑ Back to text ↑

[9] Though it has become commonplace for only a single bow to be made for each tropar, largely due to the fact that the way the troparia of the Canon are today read (by a cleric), rather than sung, can make the performance of three full bows rather rushed, which goes against the sombre stillness of the liturgical rite as a whole. As a general rule, it is better to do one bow with sobriety than three in a rush solely for form; but where the recitation of the troparia is paced slowly enough, three unrushed bows are possible. ↑ Back to text ↑

[10] Psalm 69 (Septuagint), the final psalm of the Ninth Kathisma, is numbered 70 in the Hebrew Psalter, and thence in most English editions. The Church Slavonic numeration follows that of the Septuagint. ↑ Back to text ↑

[11] St Joseph is credited with the first of the two canons for each of the weekdays of the Great Fast, and St Theodore with the second. The first is sometimes attributed to St Joseph the Hymnographer, of the same century but a generation later; but on the proper crediting to St Joseph the Studite, see E.I. Tomadakis, Iosiph o Ymnographos (Athens, 1971), pp. 200-201; and Metropolitan Kallistos, The Lenten Triodion, p. 41. ↑ Back to text ↑

[12] Kondak of the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (see The Lenten Triodion, p. 106). ↑ Back to text ↑

[13] Stichiron on the Praises of the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (see ibid., p. 110). ↑ Back to text ↑

[14] See St Andrew’s own comments: ‘I have reviewed Moses’ account of the creation of the world, my soul, and then all canonical Scripture [i.e. the Old Testament] … and now I am bringing before you examples from the New Scriptures [i.e. New Testament], my soul, to lead you to compunction’ (Ode 9.2, 4). ↑ Back to text ↑

[15] This talk was given at the 2017 Lenten Pastoral Conference of the Eastern American Diocese of the ROCOR, and the Diocesan Centre in Lakewood, New Jersey. Within the Diocese stands Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary, the principal seminary of the Church Abroad. ↑ Back to text ↑