On the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete
Sermon preached by Melissa Nassiff at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA on Sunday, March 6, 2016
March is Antiochian Women’s Month, and as usual, some of the women of St. Mary's will be giving the homilies. This year each of us will be talking about some of the hymns that are used in our worship during Lent and Pascha.
Today I will be talking about the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which is used during the first week of Lent. It's a meditation on the theme of repentance and forgiveness, and going through it prayerfully and attentively helps us deepen and enrich our own experience of repentance.
St. Andrew lived in the 8th century. He was born in Damascus and was raised in a Christian family, and eventually he became Bishop of Crete. He was well known for his preaching and for the hymns he composed. Evidently he first began writing the Canon as his own personal meditation. Since he knew the Bible well, he used many references to characters and stories from the Bible - some of them as good role models, and many of them as examples of the sins and failures he finds in himself. But at the same time he reiterates over and over God's mercy and his eagerness to forgive.
For example, at one point he compares his sinful thoughts to the murderous thieves who had attacked the victim in the Good Samaritan parable. He says,
“I confess to thee, O Savior, the sins I have committed, the wounds of my soul and body, which murderous thoughts, like thieves, have inflicted inwardly upon me.”
But then he goes on to affirm,
“Though I have sinned, O Savior, yet I know that you are full of loving-kindness. You chastise with mercy and are fervent in compassion. You see me weeping and you run to meet me, like the Father calling back the prodigal son.”
You’ll recognize that description of the Father from last week's gospel, right? As soon as the son realized that his life was a mess after taking his inheritance and going off on his own, as soon as he turned around and started to come home again, before he even had a chance to say the words of repentance he had rehearsed, the father saw him coming and went joyfully running to him, brushing aside the words and enveloping him in love and forgiveness. This is the image of the Father that St. Andrew constantly holds up in the Canon. Repentance is always met with loving forgiveness.
That's not always true of our dealings with each other, is it. When I was very young, about 4 or 5, I was playing one day with a friend whose mother had brought us to the campus where our fathers both taught. Tommy and I were racing up and down the wide marble stairs that led up to the library, and he gave me a shove that made me fall down a couple of stairs. Not only was I hurt – not very seriously, as I recall – but I was indignant. He had wronged me! His mother prompted him to apologize: “What do you say?” and he replied, “I'm sorry.” Whether or not he meant the words, at least he had said them. But then she turned to me and prompted me the same way: “Now what do you say?” I had no idea what she wanted to hear from me, so she told me: “Say 'That's okay.'” She was asking me to forgive him, and I didn’t want to!
Sometimes we have trouble believing in God's forgiveness, because we ourselves are unwilling to forgive. How many of us think of repentance like my friend Tommy, as nothing more than saying “I'm sorry”? Just say the words, and the offense is forgiven and forgotten. When you go to confession, do you go with a list of sins you've committed, rules you've broken? And when the priest pronounces absolution do you feel you're free to go and resume your life as before? Does repentance change your life?
It should. The dictionary defines the word “repent” as “to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one's life.” We call it “metanoia” - “to change one's mind.” It implies seeing the truth and making a decision to turn around - to face a new direction.
I don't think Tommy's coerced apology actually resulted in his turning in a new direction, and never pushing anyone on the steps again. And I’m sure I didn’t respond with loving forgiveness. It’s something we all need to work at.
But living with the Great Canon during that first week of Lent – or better yet, throughout all of Lent* – helps us focus more and more deeply on what it means to repent, how it feels to repent, and most especially, how it feels to be forgiven.
*If you’re interested in spending Lent with the Great Canon, I recommend the book, First Fruits of Prayer, by Frederica Matthewes-Green. In it she divides the Canon into forty sections – one for each day of Lent – and provides helpful notes that identify the biblical source of each reference, plus comments and suggestions for our own meditation.