Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Penitential Nature of the Great Canon of St. Andrew

Today, I was able to experience something different compared to what I have encountered during my Lenten journeys over my life. Many Latin Catholics probably aren't too familiar with the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. If you want to be immersed in the beauty of the Byzantine liturgical tradition, you should look no further than the singing of these hymns during the canon. The canon was written by the great hymnographer, St. Andrew, bishop of Crete, in the seventh century. It is the longest canon ever created, with 250 hymns when sung in its entirety.

During the first week of Great Lent (also known as Pure Week), the Canon is divided into four parts, Monday through Thursday. On the fifth Thursday of Lent, the canon is sung in its entirety, lasting over three hours. I went on a Thursday night, and while it was beautiful and intimate, it was definitely a work out, and was not what I was expecting. Following the opening incensation of the church, we got a little pep talk by the priest. He told us if we felt tired, to take a break. He advised us to get water if our voice cracked, since we would be doing a lot of singing. But why would he warn us about getting tired? Because the entire service included over 100 full body prostrations... and that was just for Thursday's portion.
St. Andrew of Crete and St. Mary of Egypt
We talk about penitential acts and mortifications of the flesh and spirit all the time during Lent in the Latin Rite, and people still complain when all we're asked to do is fast for two days and abstain from meat on Fridays. Well if you want mortifications, then look no further than the Canon of St. Andrew. The parish I was at described the entire service as follows:

"This service is a penitential journey through the entire Bible and it features the penitential gesture of the full body prostration. This service is very lengthy so we invite you to attend whatever part of it that you are able. For those unable to make a full body prostration, we recommend making a profound bow."
A full body prostration consists of the person making the sign of the Cross, then he falls to his knees and places his hands on the floor as well, with his forehead touching the ground. As we do this we sing, "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!" How powerful it is when we lay prostrate before our Lord! The Canon truly does lead us through the entire Bible, exhorting us not to follow the examples of people who incurred God's wrath, and encouraging us to be repentant like King David, Zacchaeus. A sampling from the various hymns that were sung:
"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.(Genesis 19:26) (Thursday: Ode 3:5) 
"I have reviewed all the people of the Old Testament as examples for you, my soul. Imitate the God-loving deeds of the righteous and shun the sins of the wicked (Tuesday: Ode 8)"

To learn more about the Canon, go here. I definitely plan on going again this March 30th. I literally came face to face with my sinfulness during this service, and in a way that I never have in the Latin Rite. In the Roman Catholic Church, I come to contemplate Christ and His sufferings in the Stations of the Cross. But during the Great Canon, I come to contemplate how wretched of a sinner I am, yet despite my shortcomings, God still stands ready to forgive me for my sins. At one moment it's horrible to face the reality of what our sin does, but at the next moment we are filled with hopeful joy because we know God won't abandon us if we put our trust in Him and truly repent. Next time, I'll just make sure to wear some lighter-weight clothes, because you do start to feel it after a while. But I'll suffer these little mortifications this Lenten season, and offer it up to our Lord. What more can we do?

To see some video of the Great Canon, check out this portion of the service from Ukrainian-Greek Catholic parish in Lviv, Ukraine:

No comments:

Post a Comment