Monday, February 18, 2008
Where Shall I begin? What Foundation shall I lay?
Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
Where shall I begin to weep over the cursed deeds of my life? What foundation shall I lay, O Christ, for this lamentation? (The Great Canon of St. Andrew)
Great Lent for the year of our Lord 2008 will begin three weeks from today on March 10. If there is one thing the Church does well, it is to alert us of the upcoming liturgical seasons of fasting and feasting through various services, scriptural readings, ecclesial calendar notations, etc. Through homilies, handouts and cyberspace correspondence, I will do my best to bring out these diverse elements of preparation. As I said toward the close of yesterday's homily, if we are caught unaware on March 10 of the beginning of Great Lent, then truly our minds and hearts are elsewhere! If we plead "busyness," then truly we are too busy and need to begin reordering our priorities.
For the moment, I would like to look ahead to the first week of Great Lent and the wonderful opportunities it will afford to all of us for entering into the spirit of the season with depth and direction. And I want to focus in particular on the liturgical service that marks the first four evenings of that first week of Great Lent: the Great Canon of St. Andrew (also known as the Canon of Repentance). This unrivaled masterpiece of liturgical poetry and scriptural application is divided into four parts and designated to be chanted during the first four evenings of the Fast. That is the practice that we faithfully follow every year. So, beginning on Monday evening, March 10, and continuing through Thursday evening, March 13, that is again what we will be doing as a parish. My purpose here is to encourage, convince, exhort and inspire everyone to make an honest effort to come to this service at least one evening of the first week. You may decide, of course, to come more than once! I am hoping that a three week "notification" will prove to be enough to make that possible with some planning. I am definitely including our families with children in this exhortation. The solemn atmosphere of the darkened church, illuminated by the icon lamps and candles; the rhythmic chanting of the Canon with its sober melodies and bows of repentance; and the closing prostrations accompanying the Prayer of St. Ephraim, are all capable of leaving an indelible impression on the young souls of our church school-aged children.
When we wake up on Monday morning, March 10, we may indeed begin our fasting discipline, but even that important part of Lent needs an ecclesial and communal context. For fasting is a part of our over-all desire to repent and return to God. The Great Canon of St. Andrew expresses that in image after image taken from the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament. With our children studying the Old Testament this year in Church School, many of the troparia will come to life for them as they hear the names of the figures they have been discussing in class - saints and sinners alike. The prayerful context of hearing all of this, deepens and brings to life the sacred history of the Chosen People of God in a way that even the best classroom setting cannot. Adults who are "scripturally challenged" will be able to absorb some of the Old Testament's meaningful examples of sanctity and sin. Our own lives are mysteriously incorporated into the ongoing history of God's people through the liturgical actualization of the Scriptures. We can either imitate the saints in their closeness to God through faith, hope and love - or the sinners through their wrong decisions, misguided desires, or blindness to God's truth. All of this is illuminated by Christ and the Gospel call to repentance.
If you have never been to this remarkable service, then now is the time to fill in that gap of lost liturgical experience. Anyone who has come to this service over the years is certainly looking forward to the Canon of St. Andrew with no less enthusiasm than expressed here. Once experienced, it is hard to imagine the first week of Great Lent without coming to the Canon. This is because it sets the tone for the over-all meaning of Great Lent. It is a blessing and privilege for all Orthodox Christians, that such depth and beauty are part of our Tradition. In the culturally and even religiously superficial atmosphere of today's society, we cannot afford to pass up these opportunities for experiencing some real depth that can shake our souls out of the complacency, contentment and self-righteousness that characterized the Pharisee of yesterday's parable read in church, and which threatens to engulf us at every turn. With a bit of effort, planning, and perhaps "calendar adjustments," this is easily within our grasp. "Redeem the time!" as the Apostle Paul exhorts us.
The Canon of St. Andrew is chanted within the context of the Compline Service and takes about an hour.
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By the way, this current week of the Publican and the Pharisee is a fast-free week. There is no fasting of any sort for the duration of the entire week including, of course, Wednesday and Friday. Enjoy it while you can!