What is “the Great Canon of St. Andrew” ?
The Great Canon is a long chanted hymn in the form of a poem. It consists of four parts, each divided into nine odes like a regular canon, but there are more troparia (stanzas).
The refrain is “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me,” and a full prostration is performed.
What’s “Great” about it?
The Church decided to call it the Great Canon not so much for its length (250 troparia, or verses), as for the quality and power of its content.
When was it written?
It was written in the Seventh Century. When St. Andrew traveled to Constantinople for the 6th Ecumenical Council, in the year 680 AD, he brought with him and made public both his great composition and the life of St. Mary of Egypt, written by his compatriot and teacher, Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Life of St. Mary of Egypt is read together with the Great Canon at Matins on Wednesday of the fifth week of Great Lent.
What is it about?
The canon is like a guide through the Bible. It starts with Adam and Eve, and goes through a long list of characters in both the Old and New Testament, but each time applying the story to our own situation.
Through the individuals and events recounted in the Great Canon, the history of the Old Testament and the New Testament passes before us. Its author points out to us our forefathers’ falling into sin, and the corruption of the original world. He points to Noah’s virtues and the bitterness and lack of repentance shown by the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. He resurrects for us the memory of the righteous patriarchs and valiant men: Moses, Joshua son of Nun, Gideon and Jepthah; he allows us to look at the King David’s piety, his fall and touching repentance; he points out to us Ahab’s and Jezebel’s impiety, and also the great paradigms of repentance – the Ninevites, Manasseh, the harlot, and the wise thief. He accords special attention to Mary of Egypt, and more than once stops the reader at the Cross and at the Holy Sepulchre of our Lord. Everywhere, he teaches repentance, humility, prayer, and self-denial. It is in these examples that the exhortation to the soul constantly takes place –
[O my soul] remember this righteous one; thus did he please God; remember that righteous one as well; thus did he please God; you have done nothing comparable.
Who’s it addressed to?
Really, the canon is a conversation between the penitent sinner and his soul.
The conversation begins:
“Where shall I begin to weep for the actions of my wretched life? What first-fruit shall I offer O Christ in this my lamentation? But in Thy compassion grant me forgiveness of sins.” – with what shall I begin to repent, for it is so difficult.”
A marvelous troparion follows:
“Come wretched soul, with thy flesh to the Creator of all. Make confession to Him, and abstain henceforth from thy past brutishness; and offer to God tears of repentance.”
The words are astonishing, containing both Christian anthropology and asceticism: our flesh, an inseparable part of human nature and being, must also participate in our repentance.
The culmination of this conversation with the soul, its constant unremitting call to repentance, comes in the kontakion sung following the 6th canticle of the Canon:
“My soul, O my soul, rise up! Why art thou sleeping? The end draws near and soon thou shalt be troubled. Watch, then, that Christ thy God may spare thee, for He is everywhere present and fillest all things.”
The Great Canon of St Andrew is read each year as part of the ascetic labour of the Great Fast (Lent). Divided into four portions, these are read during the services of Great Compline on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings of the First Week (‘Pure/Clean Week’) of the Fast. The whole Canon is then read in its entirety on Thursday of the Fifth Week (actually read ‘in anticipation’ on Wednesday evening).
The Great Canon is one of the great works, if not the great work, of the Church’s hymnography of repentance. It is steeped in biblical imagery, yet it is not simply a condensation of biblical themes. In the Canon, all the human events of scripture—creation, fall, exile, return, longing, redemption—all are made personal. They become my events: my creation, my fall, my redemption. Their story is my story, and I am made intensely aware of all its depth. The Canon begins:
‘Where shall I begin to weep over the cursed deeds of my life?
What foundation shall I lay, O Christ, for this
The Canon thus brings each of us into the story of scripture; stirs us with moving imagery to realize the depths of our sin. We begin to see our exile, our distance from Christ; and from that distance, we begin to repent.
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