Friday, March 7, 2014

The End is Approaching

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Here is a "Lenten thought" from outside the Tradition, but one that expresses the Tradition very well:

"One should go easy on smashing other people's lies. Better to concentrate on one's own."  (Iris Murdoch)


The End is Approaching

The Great Canon that we chant at the beginning of Lent (and again during the Fifth Week) was written by St. Andrew of Crete.  He lived for many years as a monk in the Holy Land, but eventually became the Archbishop of Crete and died in the year 712.  Many hymns and canons that are used to this day in the Church are attributed to him, but his greatest and most enduring work is the Great Canon of Repentance which has nourished countless generations of Orthodox Christians in our understanding of true repentance.  Actually, St. Andrew wrote the Great Canon for his own personal edification, as a heartfelt expression of his own desire to repent as fully as possible before his life drew to a close. Because of its depth, the sincerity of its compunctionate  tone, the incredible knowledge of the Bible on display, and its beauty of expression; the Great Canon has entered into the Church's communal life as a spiritual and theological masterpiece of liturgical poetry.  Even though the pronoun "I" is used throughout the Canon, it is often  meant to express each person's experience of the process of repentance; something like a collective "I." Thus, as you read the Canon there is hardly a hint as to its author, but there is at least a few "autobiographical" troparia that allow us a glimpse of St. Andrew himself.  We heard this particular and rather poignant troparion yesterday evening in Ode One of the Canon:

O Savior, do not cast me down to hell, even though in old age I lie at Your gate empty of virtue. But in Your love for mankind forgive my sins before I die.  (Wednesday evening, Ode 1)

So apparently, St. Andrew wrote the Canon near the end of his life, or at least when he considered himself to be of "old age."  He did not want to rest assured of his own virtue as he approached death and judgment.  Rather, he continued to repent and seek forgiveness of his sins. For anyone who may be creeping up on "old age" - or for anyone who is at least willing to admit that the years are "adding up" a bit - there are other "autobiographical" troparia that encourage us  also to take a sober look at our lives as they begin to inexorably "push on" toward the inevitable end:

The inward being is wounded, my body is weak; my spirit is ill, and the word is powerless. Life is giving way to death and the end is near.  What shall I do when the Judge comes and I must stand before Him?  (Monday evening, Ode 9)
The end is approaching, O my soul - it is approaching!  So why do you not care or prepare yourself for it?  Arise!  The time is short!  The Judge already stands at the door.  Life is vanishing like a dream - so why do you continue living in vanity?  (Monday evening, Ode 4)

And then there is the Kontakion that is sung while we all kneel:

My soul, my soul arise!  Why are you sleeping? The end is approaching and you will be confounded.  Awake then, and we watchful, that you may be spared by Christ God, Who is everywhere present and fills all things. (Kontakion following Ode 6)

Anyone of us, of course, who is more self-assured than St. Andrew is of his or her own virtue - or who is pretty much satisfied with one's standing before God - may find these pleas to God a bit overwrought.  However, if that is the case, we may want to think hard on this troparion:

I have no tears, no repentance, no compunction - O my God and Savior, grant these to me! (Wednesday evening, Ode 2)

Does all of this "remembrance of death" (which, however one may react, sounds quite honest and realistic) mean that St. Andrew believes that he is a sinner in the hands of an angry God?  Is he in despair over his salvation?  That is hardly the case, because the living Tradition that St. Andrew lived in and imparted to others as a bishop and hymnographer does not begin with such a theological presupposition.  For St. Andrew, and for all Orthodox Christians, Christ is our merciful Savior, the One who awaits our repentance and love and "who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth."  (I TIM. 2:4)  Ultimately, what is on display in the Great Canon is St. Andrew's overwhelming sense of the limitless love of Christ.  The Canon is an expression of his great sorrow over his own sin in the light of the limitless love of Christ. And he knows, in the depths of his heart that Christ will forgive him if he truly repents. This is expressed with great warmth and assurance throughout the Canon:

You are the sweet Jesus, You are my Creator: in You, O Savior, I shall be justified.  (Monday evening, Ode 3)

You offered Your Body and Blood for all, O crucified Word, that I might be renewed and washed. You surrendered Your Spirit to the Father that I might be brought to Him. (Wednesday evening, Ode 4)

I know You as a calm haven from the storm of transgressions, O Christ my Savior.  Protect and deliver me from the depths of my innermost sin and despair. (Wednesday evening, Ode 6)

Here is a person who spent his life concentrating on his relationship with Christ and who bore the fruits of that life through his equal assurance of the great love of Christ.

Whether or not we are facing "old age" and are aware that the "end is approaching" like St. Andrew, we are always capable of expressing sorrow for our sins and thereby our deeply- felt  need to repent.  We thank God for St. Andrew's Great Canon of Repentance, which is a great gift to the Church down the ages.

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