On the fifth Wednesday evening of Lent, the Byzantine Church celebrates the impressive Penitential Services with Prostrations, known to the Ruthenian people as “Poklony.” These moving ceremonies, celebrated within the liturgical setting of the Lenten [Great Fast] Matins, are concentrated around the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete (d. 740), which consists of 250 troparia divided into nine odes, with a prostration (Old-Slavonic: poklon – prostration, a deep bow) after each troparion. Hence it received the popular name: Prostrations or Poklony.
The Great Canon is a vast storehouse of scriptural themes and the ascetic teaching of the early Fathers of the Church. In order to fully grasp its spiritual meaning and beauty, one must know something about the history of this renowned ” Poem of Repentance.”
1. The Great or Penitential Canon was composed by one of the greatest Byzantine hymnographers of the eighth century, St. Andrew of Crete. He was born in Damascus, Syria, about 660 A.D. Making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he decided to remain there and become a monk at the famous monastery of St. Sabbas, near Jerusalem. Because of his literary gifts and genuine Christian piety he soon became a secretary for the patriarch of Jerusalem.
About 685 A.D. he was sent on a mission to Constantinople, where he became a deacon at the famous St. Sophia church. It was at this time that St. Andrew introduced many of the liturgical customs of Jerusalem to the church of Constantinople. He became so popular and infuential in the Byzantine capital that around 700 A.D. he was appointed archbishop of the important seat of Gortyna on the island of Crete.
St. Andrew of Crete distinguished himself as both an orator and hymnographer. Twenty two of his published homilies and panegyrics prove that he was at least a remarkable if not “the best” of the Byzantine orators of that era. But Andrew was at his best as a liturgical poet and hymnographer, and by his inspiring hymns he greatly contributed to the beauty of the Byzantine liturgy. We have twenty of his sticheras (idiomela) and 111 irmosy on record. His chief contribution, however, was the composition of liturgical poems referred to as Canons (Gr.: kanon-a rule, standard). Thus far, a dozen of his Canons are published and there are many as yet unedited.
Byzantine hagiography ascribes to St. Andrew the invention of the canon itself, although similar liturgical poems existed in Jerusalem since the time of St. Sophronius (d. 638). But is was St. Andrew of Crete who developed the Canon to its complete form and liturgical perfection. For this reason he is justly considered as the Father of the Canon.
2. As an integral part of the Byzantine morning services called Matins, the canon is a complex composition following certain rules. It is generally composed of nine canticles, called Odes. Each ode consists of three or more Troparia (a short poetic liturgical hymn). The first troparion of the ode is called an Irmos (Gr.: heirmos – a connecting link, tie) , since by its melody it connects together all the troparia of one particular ode. The irmos then serves as a model melody for all the troparia of a given ode.
The nine odes of a canon are modelled after the nine Canticles found in the Holy Scriptures which, in general, tend to praise God for His benefits. When composing a canon, every hymnographer, whatever the purpose of the celebration, was bound-as a rule (canon) – to make some allusion to the scriptural model (canticle) in the irmos of each ode. The number nine is a symbolic number representing the nine angelic choirs who praise God day and night in the heavens (cf. Pseudo-Dionysius, On the Celestial Hierarchy, in P.G. 3, 119f).
The canons appealed to the people not so much for their poetical form but rather for their scriptural and spiritual content. The protracted melody of the troparion moved Christian souls, yet it was the simple message of the troparia that illumined the minds of the faithful and showed them the way of true Christian living. Thus, the Byzantine hymns became a true school of Christian piety, spiritual exercises, and virtuous living. And such is the Great or Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which by some authors is called the King of Canons.
3. The Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is called Great, not only for its exalted thoughts and grand penitential impact on the Christian soul, but also for its never-ending length. While the ordinary canons are composed of at most 32- 36 troparia, the Great Canon extends to 250 troparia, each one containing some fresh thought or moving idea. Their sorrowful melody combined with so many prostrations and invocations for the mercy of God (a constantly repeated refrain is: ” Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!” ) only intensify the penitential character of the canon, moving the soul to a sincere conversion (“metanoia” ) and compunction of heart as indicated by St. Andrew in the very first ode:
” Come, O wretched soul , with your body to the Creator of all and make confession to Him. For the future abstain from your former foolish deeds, and offer to God your tears in repentance.” (cf. Ode 1, 2)
To achieve this goal, St. Andrew collected stirring stories and examples from the Old and New Testaments, and, based on their background as on a canvas, he masterfully painted the story of the fall, the sorrowful repentance, and the conversion of a Christian soul. As a whole the Great Canon is a thorough examination of conscience and a general confession:
“O my soul, wake up and consider the deeds you have done, arraign them before your eyes and let the drops of your tears stream down: then boldly confess to Christ all your deeds and thoughts, and be justified” (cf. Ode IV, 3). Now the repented soul can turn back to God and profess with all confidence:
” I have confessed the secrets of my heart to You, my Judge, look down on my humility, see my affliction, and attend now to my judgment; but in Your immense compassion, 0 God of our Fathers, have mercy on me!” (cf. Ode VII, 2)
Nevertheless, the great merit of the Penitential Canon consists in the fact that it does not leave the sinful soul in despair or hopelessness. By building up a sinner’s confidence in the infinite mercy of God, it leads him to the confession of his sins:
” Although I have sinned, O Savior, yet I know that You are full of loving kindness. You chastise with mercy and judge with compassion. And now, se eing me weeping, You run to meet me like the Father receiving back his prodigal son.” (cf. Ode I, 12)
In the Prolog (Synaxarion) for the day we find a beautiful description of the true meaning of this inspiring canon:
“On this day, according to the ancient tradition, we sing the office of the Great Canon of Compunction, praying: ‘Show us the way of compunction , O Jesus, as we sing the Great Canon in Your honor.’
“This is truly the greatest of all canons, which was superbly and artistically composed by our Father among the Saints, Andrew, the Archbishop of Crete …. With contribution from the entire history of the Old and the New Testament he gathered and put together this magnificent poem, the story of which stretches all the way from Adam to the Ascension of Christ and the preaching of the Apostles. In his canon he incites the soul to emulate and to imitate all good examples found in sacred history, and to flee from all that is bad, and always to come back to God by tears, penitence, and confession, and by every other way pleasing to Him.
“This Great Canon is so long and so well composed as to be sufficient to soften even the hardest soul , and to rouse it to the virtuous life, if only it is sung with proper attention and a contrite heart.” (cf. P.G. 97, 1361)
5. The Synod of Trullo (692 A.D.) , considered by the Byzantine canonists as the continuation of the VI Ecumenical Council (681), ordered the Great Canon to be inserted into the Matins of the fifth Thursday of Lent. The Prolog (Synaxarion) gives the following explanation:
“Since the holy season of Lent is drawing near its end, and so that people would not become idle and careless in their spiritual contests, or even give up altogether, the great Andrew, like some trainer, through the stories of the Great Canon, in which he describes the virtues of great men and the defeat of bad, incites the faithful to become more perfect and diligent, in order that they manfully ‘reach out to those things which are before.’ ” (Phil. 3:13)
The same Synod also ordered that the Life of Sf. Mary of Egypt, ascribed to St. Sophronius of Jerusalem (cf. P.G . 87, 3697 ft.), be read at the Matins. The Prolog explains: “For the story of the Egyptian woman sets forth how great is the loving kindness of God to those who with all their souls choose to turn away from their former sins.”
It seems that St. John Damascene (d. 749) replaced the reading of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt with two additional troparia, composed by him for each ode in her honor (Refrain : “O Venerable Mother Mary, pray to God for us”). He also added to each ode a troparion in honor of st. Andrew of Crete (Refrain: “O Venerable Father Andrew, pray to God for us”).