Tradition: The Canon of St. Andrew
by V. Rev. Dennis Kristof
The Great Canon composed by St. Andrew of Crete in the year 720 is one of the richest and most beautiful of our Orthodox traditions. It is titled the Great Canon not only because of the large number of troparia it contains (as compared to other canons), but also because of the magnificent allusions and references it makes to events within Sacred Scripture.
Like all canons, the Great Canon is comprised of nine odes or canticles. Within each of these are a number of troparia which for this canon total over 200. A canon is always taken at Matins (Morning Service), and sometimes also at Compline (Night Service) and Midnight Services. What distinguishes the Great Canon is that it is taken only twice during the year. It is first taken in four different sections at Great Compline during the first four days of the Great Fast. The second time it is taken in its entirety on the fifth Thursday of the Great Fast at Matins which for various reasons, is usually taken on the Wednesday evening before. This second service is also commonly referred to as Matins with Prostrations because the most distinguishing aspect of the Great Canon is that before each troparion everyone chants, Have mercy on me, O Lord, have mercy on me. Then they either bow or prostrate fully on the ground. Since this is repeated so often, it can be a rather strenuous service involving much physical exertion. Parishes, therefore, usually take an abridged form, if they take it at all. Generally, this service is not taken in its entirety except in monasteries.
Since the verse Have mercy on me... is constantly repeated along with a prostration, the Great Canon becomes a long reflection upon our sins and sinfulness, leading to a profound call to repentance. The very action of prostrating is a physical recognition of our need for forgiveness. We begin by standing upright, the position which we use at Pascha to show that we too are risen with Christ and that our nature is exalted. From this position, we prostrate ourselves in recognition that we have succumbed to the power of sin and are once again fallen. We call upon God for forgiveness and restoration to our former state.
Thus, we admit our need for forgiveness both physically and mentally, demonstrating once again the use of our entire body when praying in the Orthodox Church. This is the reason we prostrate during penitential seasons.
The oft-suggested criticism that Orthodox Christians do not quote the Bible enough is totally refuted by anyone who is familiar with the Great Canon. The content of the Great Canon can best be described as a penitential lamentation which incorporates all the biblical themes.
References to people and events of the Old Testament are so numerous that even those well versed in the Bible find it necessary to look up some of the things being referred to in the individual troparia. It serves as a reflection on the whole body of Scripture which includes all the sinners and the righteous people from the Creation to the coming of Jesus Christ.
The historical events of salvation are intimately related to our present lives in the Great Canon. The historical is intertwined with the personal in many of the liturgical texts during the Great Fast because God has accomplished the work of our redemption not only 2000 years ago, but He continues to do it by His presence in our world today. We, like the sinners mentioned in Sacred Scripture, have betrayed God and sinned. We are part of the all encompassing struggle between God and sin. We are challenged to once again enter into this battle during the Great Fast to be led back to the Risen Lord.
Thus, the function of the Great Canon is to reveal our sins and sinfulness, which will in turn lead us to repentance. We do not reflect upon sin conceptually and abstractly, but as a personal meditation on Scripture and our place in salvation history. Like Scripture, our own lives are a story of Paradise, the fall, repentance and redemption. We fall from our exalted state which we have received as fruit of the Resurrection at our Baptism into the power of sin. When we recognize this and are repentant, God once again forgives us restoring us to our previous state. In order that we may return to God through profound repentance, the Great Canon of St. Andrew urges all of us to imitate the good deeds of the righteous and to avoid the evil deeds of the sinners recorded in Scripture. We throw ourselves down when we prostrate because it is not someone else who knocked us down. Rather, we have brought ourselves down through sin. We prostrate with the confidence that our loving Lord will raise us up again, just as He restored the fallen human race after the sin of Adam.