My dear brothers and sisters,
We start the Great Lent by reading for four consecutive evenings the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete:
My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The Great Canon of St Andrew, Bishop of Crete, is the longest canon in all of our services, and is associated with Great Lent, since the only times it is appointed to be read in church are the first four nights of Great Lent (Clean Monday through Clean Thursday, at Great Compline, when it is serialized) and at Matins for Thursday of the fifth week of Great Lent, when it is read in its entirety (in this latter service, the entire life of St Mary of Egypt is also read).
There is no other sacred hymn which compares with this monumental work, which St Andrew wrote for his personal meditations. Nothing else has its extensive typology and mystical explanations of the scripture, from both the Old and New Testaments. One can almost consider this hymn to be a “survey of the Old and New Testament”. Its other distinguishing features are a spirit of mournful humility, hope in God, and complex and beautiful Trinitarian Doxologies and hymns to the Theotokos in each Ode.
The canon is a dialog between St. Andrew and his soul. The ongoing theme is an urgent exhortation to change one’s life. St Andrew always mentions his own sinfulness placed in juxtaposition to God’s mercy, and uses literally hundreds of references to good and bad examples from the OT and NT to “convince himself” to repent.
A canon is an ancient liturgical hymn, with a very strict format. It consists of a variable number of parts, each called an “ode”. Most common canons have eight Odes, numbered from one to nine, with Ode 2 being omitted. The most penitential canons have all nine odes. Some canons have only three Odes, such as many of the canons in the “Triodion” (which means “Three Odes”).
In any case, all Odes have the same basic format. An “Irmos” begins each Ode. This is generally sung, and each Irmos has a reference to one of the nine biblical canticles, which are selections from the Old and New Testament, which can be found in an appendix in any complete liturgical Psalter (book of Psalms, arranged for reading in the services). A variable number of “troparia” follow, which are short hymns about the subject of the canon. These are usually chanted, and not sung. After each troparion a “refrain” is chanted. At the end of each Ode, another hymn, called the “Katavasia”, either the Irmos previously sung, or one like it is sung.
The troparia of the Great Canon in all its twelve Odes are usually chanted by the priest in the center of the church, with the choir singing the Irmos and Katavasia. There are varying traditions about bows and prostrations. Some prostrate and some make the sign of the cross and bow three times after the Irmos and each troparion.
The Significance of Great Lent
Great Lent before Easter is when the Christian participates fully in preparing himself to praise and glorify his God as Lord and Savior. Great Lent is like a “workshop” where the character of the faithful is spiritually uplifted and strengthened; where his life is rededicated to the principles and ideals of the Gospel; where the faith culminates in deep conviction of life; where apathy and disinterest turn into vigorous activities of faith and good works. Lent is not for the sake of Lent itself, as fasting is not for the sake of fasting. But they are means by which and for which the individual believer prepares himself to reach for, accept and attain the calling of his Savior. Therefore, the significance of Great Lent is highly appraised, not only by the monks who gradually increased the length of time of the Lent, but also by the lay people themselves, although they do not observe the full length of time. As such, Great Lent is the sacred Institute of the Church to serve the individual believer in participating as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ, and, from time to time, to improve the standards of faith and morals in his Christian life. The deep intent of the believer during the Great Lent is “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”, Philippians 3:13-14.
Fasting Guidelines during Great Lent
We Orthodox Christians, in obedience to the words of our Divine Savior, and in imitation of the saints, set aside a period of intense fasting and prayer in order to purify our spiritual senses so we may see the Holy Resurrection. Following the traditions handed to us by the saints, we abstain from all meat products, all dairy products, eggs, fish and olive oil the entire period of lent. Those who believe that we fast strictly only for the first and last week err and are not in accord with the teaching of the saints. We may have olive oil on Saturdays and Sundays and any day there is a Polyeleos. We may partake of fish only on the feast of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday.
Only those who are ill or for medical reasons are unable to fast are excused form this God-pleasing struggle. And those people may discuss the matter in confession. Children also fast to their ability, again, discussed privately with the spiritual father. Married couples may not have physical relations the entire of Great Lent. Televisions should be either unplugged or severely limited with no worldly music allowed. Families should gather in prayer more frequently and attend as many church services during the week as they possibly can. Holy Communion and Confession should be observed weekly.
To break the fast is a matter for repentance and confession. To do so by accident is understandable. To knowingly break the fast with no regard or as though fasting were unimportant is definitely a sin which must be confessed.
We can always develop elaborate defenses against fasting, but in the end, if fasting were not vital for our spiritual development, the Lord and His saints would not have commanded it. Some will say that fasting is a matter for monastics. They do not speak the truth. History shows a long practice of strict fasting for all Christians. We may say that fasting is a tool, and not the goal of the spiritual life. But, what physician would perform surgery without the beneficial use of an antiseptic or without washing his hands? What carpenter would build a house with no hammer? What gardener would tend his crops without implements? What Christian would advance to the heavenly kingdom without prayer and fasting?