BIBLE STORIES have long been a favorite means of keeping the Word of God fresh in our minds. They appeal to all ages, from pre-schoolers to mature adults. In our age they have been retold in comic books, films and even video games. They have been rewritten in regional dialects and recast in cultures very different from those of the Bible lands themselves. During the Great Fast we encounter “Bible stories” in an ancient and unique medium, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.
Born in Damascus in approximately 650, St Andrew entered the Monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem when he was fourteen or fifteen years old. At that time Mar Saba’s experienced a profound development of its liturgical life. The usage of Jerusalem was augmented by services, hymns and prayers originating in the monastery. Andrew contributed to this development with a new form of his own invention, the canon.
In the rite of matins at the time, biblical canticles, such as the hymn of the three young men in the Book of Daniel, were sung with a short refrain such as “Alleluia”. St Andrew’s canons replaced these refrains with troparia based on the commemoration of the day. Canons have remained part of matins, compline and some other services to this day.
At some point St Andrew’s literary and theological abilities were noticed. Within ten years he was chosen to serve as a secretary to the patriarch and was enrolled among the clergy of the patriarchate of Jerusalem. St Andrew was appointed to the patriarch’s delegation to the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681). Here too his abilities attracted the attention of Church authorities and he was appointed as archdeacon of the Great Church (Hagia Sophia) and finally as Archbishop of Crete. St Andrew reposed about the year 725.
The Great Canon
St Andrew’s longest work of Church poetry is the Great Canon, which consists of 250 verses. It may have been composed as a personal meditation rather than a liturgical text. Nonetheless, it was soon included in the monastery typikon. It was later adopted in Constantinople and then in all the Byzantine Churches.
The canon is made up of nine odes, each containing reflections on various characters in the Old and New Testaments allowing us to discover in them the way of repentance. In the Great Canon St Andrew recalls a Biblical story then compares or contrasts it to the state of his soul. He focuses on the weaknesses these characters display and applies them to himself. He also contrasts himself with the examples of the righteous. In either case he concludes with an appeal to God’s mercy which can overshadow all our weaknesses.
St Andrew exhibits the kind of rigorous self-examination found in many spiritual writers of earlier ages. By including his reflections in our common worship the Church is showing that we all share the condition which St Andrew saw in himself and are called to the same repentance.
A Gloomy Picture?
To some the self-portrait St Andrew paints is unnecessarily dismal. Perhaps this is because we, like the Pharisee in Christ’s parable, are used to comparing ourselves to others whom we perceive to be weaker than ourselves. We have forgotten Christ’s injunction, “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).
The Eastern spiritual tradition, as expressed in the Great Canon and elsewhere, rather focuses on the heights to which we have been called: our creation in the image of God, union with Christ in baptism and our status as temples of the Holy Spirit called to “be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). When we reflect on the sharing in God’s own life (theosis) to which we are invited, we cannot but see how far our actual life falls short of that goal and how much we need the loving mercy of God.
Our spiritual nature has been adversely affected by our thoughts and actions just as our physical health may be by overindulging in food, drink or smoking. To restore our spiritual well-being we must accept that “the rest of our life be spent in peace and repentance.” The whole of the Christian’s life – particularly during the Fast – is meant to be a therapeutic struggle to restore us to the health which has been weakened in us. This is why in many churches this canon is sung during Great Compline, spread over the first four days of the Great Fast.
Images from the Old Testament
Adam and Eve – “Instead of the first Eve I have the Eve of the mind.” Adam was persuaded to eat the forbidden fruit by Eve. I do not need another to tempt me. I have my passionate thoughts to tempt me, “showing me sweet things, yet ever making me taste and swallow bitter things” (Ode 1).
“I have torn the first garment that the Creator wove for me in the beginning, and now I lie naked” (Ode 2).
Cain and Abel – While Abel sacrificed the firstborn of his flock to God, Cain’s offering was some of “the fruit of the ground” (i.e. not the first or the best?). “O Jesus, I have not been like Abel in his righteousness. Never have I offered You acceptable gifts or godly actions, a pure sacrifice or a life unblemished….Like Cain I have offered defiled actions and a polluted sacrifice” (Ode 1).
Jacob – To gain Rachel as his wife Jacob labored seven years for his father-in-law. He was given Leah instead. It took another seven years of toil to acquire Rachel. “By the two wives, understand that one is action and the other is spiritual understanding… Without labor, O my soul, neither action nor contemplation will succeed” (Ode 4).
Moses – “The great Moses dwelt in the wilds, my soul. So go and imitate his life, that you too may attain by contemplation to the vision of God in the bush” (Ode 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” (Ode 8).
Images from the New Testament
Good Samaritan –The man in the parable was attached by robbers, but I am beset by my passions. “Murderous thoughts, like thieves, have wounded me inwardly” “I am the man who fell among thieves, my own thoughts. They have covered my whole body with wounds and I lay beaten and bruised. Come to me, O Christ my Savior, and heal me” (Ode 9).
Repentant Sinners – “Zacchaeus was a publican, but yet was healed. The Pharisee was disappointed, but the harlot received the release of full forgiveness from Him who has power to forgive sins. Obtain His forgiveness yourself, my soul” (Ode 9).
The Good Thief – “A robber accused You, and a robber confessed You to be God, when both were hanging on a cross with You. But open even to me, O most compassionate Savior, the door of Your glorious Kingdom as You did to the faithful robber who acknowledged You to be God” (Ode 9).