“Of all acts of man repentance is the most divine. The greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none.” - Thomas Carlyle
This week, the Greek Orthodox faithful are celebrating the fifth week of Lent, and the liturgical services are reaching their peak in terms of their length and their injunctions to the faithful to repent and ensure the salvation of their soul. Today is the liturgy of the Mégas Kanón (Μέγας Κανών), or “Great Canon”, which is chanted in churches in the vespers of the Wednesday. The Great Canon was composed by St Andrew of Crete and is also known as the Canon of Repentance, as it is a lengthy penitential canon composed in the seventh century AD.
The Great Canon is so called as it consisted originally of 250 troparia, the number of the verses of the nine odes of the Bible. St Andrew wrote a troparion for each verse. Usually Canons have around 30 troparia, about four troparia for each ode. In later times, other hymnologists added to the Great Canon in honour of St Andrew and St Mary the Egyptian, so that today the Great Canon comprises 280 troparia.
The Great Canon is outstanding in its extremely broad use of images and subjects taken both from the Old and New Testaments. As the Canon progresses, the congregation encounters many biblical examples of sin and repentance. The Bible speaks of some individuals in a positive light, and about others in a negative one: The penitents are expected to emulate the positive examples of sanctity and repentance, and to learn from and avoid the negative examples of sin, fallen nature and pride. However, one of the most notable aspects of the Canon is that it attempts to portray the Biblical images in a very personal way easily approachable by every penitent. The Canon is written in such a way that the faithful can find it easy to identify themselves with many people and events found in the Bible.
St Andrew has composed this long Canon such that each one of us is prepared for death. It is in a form of a long and mournful dialogue with his soul. He considers death and sees that the Day of Judgment is fast approaching. He considers his past life, all his deeds, good and bad and the acknowledgment of his sins overwhelms him. The consideration of his life when compared with the personages of the Bible find it lacking in the qualities and actions of the good, and he identifies more with the sinners and the bad. He feels immense guilt and wishes of redemption in order to be able to stand in front of his maker. The only option for him is to repent and be genuinely penitent over his past sins. The last part of the Canon is a heart-felt conversation of the sinner with his blemished soul, where he calls upon it to rise from the blackness and be awakened from its sleep:
My soul, my soul, arise!
Why are you sleeping?
The end is drawing near,
And you will be confounded.
Awake, then, and be watchful,
That Christ our God may spare you,
He Who is present everywhere
And fills all things.
The full text of the Great Canon in English can be found here..