Sunday, March 13, 2011

Reflections on the first week--The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

We have now entered into the contest, into the struggle, into the fight to repent of our sins and follow Christ's journey to Gologotha where His sacrifice of His very self has brought unto us life. This first week, John the Forerunner and Christ's single word that summed up their ministry--Repent!--is at the head of every liturgical service in the Orthodox Church. And no where else in Orthodox hymnography is the subject of repentance so dominant, so beautifully laid out as to why it is not only necessary but also liberating than in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.

I need not go into the various irmoi or troparia of this particular canon but I want to share an incident that happened in conversation with me during the week. At my parish, during the first week, on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday we chant Great Compline with the Canon of St. Andrew. On Wednesday, we celebrate the presanctified Liturgy. We will not return to the canon again until the fifth week of Great Lent. Great Compline with the Canon (even if only 1/4 of it) along with a Gospel reading appointed during only the first week makes this a very long and involved service. It clocks in regularly at about 2 hours, but what a wonderful two hours it is. Unforunately, not everyone feels the same way and I shouldn't expect them to but I was taken aback by a comment made to me by a parishioner when he remarked that the chanting of the canon was not necessary because it not only made the service too long (a complaint we get from too many parishioners, mostly older ones) and because the Canon can be summed up in seven words: "I have sinned, Jesus. Have mercy upon me." There was no need to have all these Biblical, both Old and New Testament, exempla to demonstrate this very fact. I didn't know how to respond so I just shrugged it off and went about my business. I wanted to say, "If you're going to complain, don't come" but such would not be in the spirit of the season and that would be a retort more for a priest to his flock than a lowly non-tonsured chanter to give.

That night I went home to think about this question. To be honest, the man had a point: if the canon is meant to draw attention to our sin, why do we need the Bible lesson about other sinners? And the answer came to me as I was rereading +Fr. Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent. I read this book every year for Lent and I always discover and rediscover something new. And this was definitely something new. Schmemann says that such a question represents a fundamental misunderstanding of sin.

Sin is not just something that happens to us. Sin is nothing. It is an absence of good. It is an absence of God. Sin is the very mark that we, as a race, are alienated from God. Our individual sins are not new. As Solomon once said, "There is nothing new under the sun." Our sins are those of the harlot, the publican, the pharisee, the persecutor Saul, Lamech, Cain, Adam, Eve, David, Joseph's brothers, the blind man, etc. Now, we may not all be adulterers or thieves or murderers or slave traffickers but it makes no difference. Sin is a contagion that infects the entire human race; it diminishes our health. Our inherited corruption (not guilt) makes us immediate kin to such great sinners as Saul, Adam, Eve, David, the harlot. Their sins are our sins because we are of the same stock.

The question also reveals that we, particularly as Americans, are so self-centered and individualistic that we think that our sins couldn't possibly be connected to anyone or anything else. I'm sure that someone would respond that such an approach reveals Americans' prerogative to take personal responsibility and maybe there is some truth in that. Yes, take responsibility and confess your sins, but don't think for a moment that your humanity is different from everyone else's; it isn't. We may fall individually, but the cause of that fall is universal and our salvation is also universal.

Finally, the question also reveals that so many of us treat sin not as something inherently corrupting or destroying but as an inconvenience that can be soothed over by the church acting more as psychotherapist/life coach than as a physician for people who are ill. Sin is regarded as a weakness to which the cure is to toughen up or mask it so that it doesn't appear to actually affect us. The truth of the matter is that for many people, sin doesn't affect them or they don't actually realize it does. They see it as something perennially there and hopefully a little confession will get them "in order" for Pascha. The cure of repentance will not even be tried.

Keep in mind that this question came not to me from a Protestant or Catholic, but an Orthodox Christian. I don't know much about this particular person but I know he has been Orthodox much longer than I, possibly from birth. However long is irrelevant. What this demonstrates is that the Orthodox churches, her clergy, her teachers, her families, her laity face a huge battle in our own flock. I'm not sure how to address it and to treat it. We should not stop what we are doing liturgically and we cannot force people to attend and we cannot force people to change their mind with regards to what sin really is.

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