Next week, Lent begins in the Eastern tradition and continues in the West. Traditionally, in the East, Lent begins with the Canon of St. Andrew, which takes 4 nights to complete. This service, in my opinion, is arguably the most, well, devastating expression of liturgical repentance that is performed. The canon is then followed by a Compline (Vespers/Evening Prayer) service which ends, in the Slavic tradition with the Prayer of St. Ephraim. As noted here:
A basic distinguishing feature of the Great Canon is its extremely broad use of images and subjects taken both from the Old and New Testaments. As the Canon progresses, the congregation encounters many biblical examples of sin and repentance. The Bible (and therefore, the Canon) speaks of some individuals in a positive light, and about others in a negative one—the penitents are expected to emulate the positive examples of sanctity and repentance, and to learn from and avoid the negative examples of sin, fallen nature and pride. However, one of the most notable aspects of the Canon is that it attempts to portray the Biblical images in a very personal way to every penitent: the Canon is written in such form that the faithful identify themselves with many people and events found in the Bible.
So, if you are Catholic or Protestant practice Lent or not I’d like to recommend that you try to find and visit a local Orthodox parish and experience the Great Canon. I’m not saying this as an attempt to wrest anyone from their particular practice or tradition. Instead what I’m seeking is raise awareness of this powerful meaningful religious Lenten experience. If possible, find a Slavic (OCA, Romanian, Ukrainian or similar) parish to go to in order to see this as the above mentioned prayer caps the service very well and is absent in the Greek tradition. I don’t know about the Antiochian Orthodox tradition on whether they use St. Ephrem’s prayer or not.
Some notes for the non-Orthodox visitor:
- Prostration will be practice by the Orthodox during this service. Nobody will be insulted if you don’t participate. Prostration physically involves kneeling and pressing your forehead to the floor between your hands. Those who perform this will say, this is how man should present himself before God. But for the visitor, remember prostration or not … is voluntary and don’t be surprised to see it.
- The Orthodox present will kiss icons. Veneration (kissing) of icons is at a basic level a way of offering respect, which is much more dignified than, say, an American high-five or thumbs up. This isn’t idol worship and again, it’s voluntary and nobody will be taken aback if you don’t also do that. Lighting of candles and kissing the priest’s hand are similar practices which again you don’t have to do, and nobody will censure you at all for not doing so.
- The music will be a capella voice and likely depending on the skill and number of choral members who are present possible a little shaky. The entire canon will be sung or chanted. Forgive mistakes, imagine how it would sound done as written, and more importantly try to let the chant help you find other ways of appreciating what is being said.
- There will be incense. In the Old Testament, worship always entailed incense. That remains the case in the Orthodox tradition.
Again, I’ll repeat, if you are of any Western tradition and are in Lent or want to connect in a personal way via liturgy with repentance … go to the Canon of St. Andrew next week … at the very least try it just on the first night and keep coming if it connects with you.
And if you do, and have either never witnessed the Canon before or an Orthodox service, email me or leave a comment here on how you found the experience. I’ll collect and repost any of those responses.
The prayer of St. Ephrem:
O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, idle curiosity/meddling, lust for power and idle talk.
But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brothers and sisters. For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.
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