The Great Canon of St Andrew is read each year as part of the ascetic labour of the Great Fast (Lent). Divided into four portions, these are read during the services of Great Compline on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings of the First Week (‘Pure/Clean Week’) of the Fast. The whole Canon is then read in its entirety on Thursday of the Fifth Week (actually read ‘in anticipation’ on Wednesday evening).
The Great Canon is one of the great works, if not the great work, of the Church’s hymnography of repentance. It is steeped in biblical imagery, yet it is not simply a condensation of biblical themes. In the Canon, all the human events of scripture—creation, fall, exile, return, longing, redemption—all are made personal. They become my events: my creation, my fall, my redemption. Their story is my story, and I am made intensely aware of all its depth. The Canon begins:
‘Where shall I begin to weep over the cursed deeds of my life?
What foundation shall I lay, O Christ, for this lamentation?’
The Canon thus brings each of us into the story of scripture; stirs us with moving imagery to realize the depths of our sin. We begin to see our exile, our distance from Christ; and from that distance, we begin to repent.