The Great Kanon: A Blessed Opportunity
by Archpriest Steven Kostoff, Rector
Christ the Savior–Holy Spirit Church, Cincinnati, Ohio
O Lord, Thou hast consecrated and granted unto us this light-giving season of abstinence. Enable all of us to pass through it in compunction and sincerity, living in peace by the power of Thy Cross, O Thou who alone lovest mankind.
— Wednesday Matins of the First Week of Great Lent
During the first week of Great Lent, we gather to celebrate the Great Penitential Kanon of Saint Andrew of Crete—a blessed opportunity to enter the Lenten atmosphere of the Church with openness and humility, both of which are pre-conditions for true repentance. Toward the end of the Kanon—in Ode Nine of part one, to be precise—Saint Andrew explains the purpose behind the Kanon itself and its numerous biblical allusions: “I have reminded you, O my soul, from the Books of Moses how the world was created, and from accounts throughout the Old Testament I have shown examples of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” But he then “gets our attention” by phrasing a categorical charge that concludes this troparion: “But of these you have imitated the latter rather than the former, and thereby sinned against your God.”
Saint Andrew offers a generalization on the human condition by humbly sharing his own sense of sinfulness based on an honest assessment of his own deeds, words and thoughts. Is anyone willing to disagree with him? Yet, if our honest self-assessment does agree with him—reluctantly or not—does this mean that we are to understand ourselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God?” As that phrase has come to be used and understood, the answer would be no. It is basically outside of the Orthodox Christian tradition to understand sin as a means to increase our sense of abjectness before God, or even of self-loathing. Such an attitude was the “logical” outcome of an anthropology that reduced humankind to a mass of damnation or total depravity. That attitude may be in the process of being corrected or abandoned today (or overly compensated for by almost eliminating the reality and expression of sin); but it surely wreaked its havoc over the centuries on how human persons understood their relationship with God. With very different presuppositions about God (theology) and human nature (anthropology), Saint Andrew is calling us to our former glory as human persons created for life “in the image and likeness of God.”
Essentially, then, we are sinners in the hands of a merciful God: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me” is the constant refrain that illuminates the meaning of repentance that is so movingly invoked by Saint Andrew’s masterpiece of liturgical poetry, biblical exegesis and probing psychological insight. This mercy is the “steadfast love” of God that desires the salvation of all. Although sin is a sickness that affects and distorts both soul and body, the recognition of sin is a sign of spiritual health and maturity. Is it at all possible to repent without the prior recognition of sin? And repentance is itself the healing process that restores our fellowship with God—a fellowship for which we were created “in the beginning” and now renewed and reestablished “in Christ!” The person who falsely protects himself from this soul-saving recognition of sin by the subterfuge of rationalization and self-deception only intensifies his stricken condition. If not recognized, arrested and reversed, such a sickness can truly be “unto death!” The voice of the world that lies to us by telling us there are no sins, but only “choices”—or that a sense of sinfulness is emotionally and psychologically crippling—only guides us into that endless cycle of pain and pleasure from which one “can’t get no satisfaction.”
Saint Andrew further relates his purpose in explaining his use of the New Testament: “Therefore, O my soul, I will remind you of examples from the New Testament to lead you to contrition. Imitate the righteous and shun the ways of sinners that through prayer, fasting, purity and reverence you may obtain the mercy of Christ.”
To acknowledge, admit, and confess our sins is to obtain the “mercy of Christ.” Not grudgingly given, but given in abundance. We need to give ourselves the opportunity to respond to this heartfelt plea by immersing ourselves into the life of the Church during Great Lent; and specifically to make ourselves present if at all possible for the chanting of Saint Andrew’s Kanon of Repentance.