The first week of Great Lent has been known since times of old as the “dawn of abstinence,” or “clean week.” During that week, the Church persuades her children to come out of that sinful state into which all of mankind fell because our forefathers did not abstain, because they lost the blessings of heaven, the state of sin which each of us increases by his personal sins. It coaxes them into coming forth by way of faith, prayer, humility and fasting, things, which are pleasing to God. This is the time for repentance, says the Church “Behold the day of salvation, the entrance to the Fast. O my soul, be watchful, close all the doors through which the passions enter, and look up towards the Lord.” (From the first canticle of the triodion canon at Matins on Monday of the first week of Great Lent).
The services of the first week are especially lengthy, and the podvig of physical abstinence during that week is considerably more rigorous than in the subsequent days of Great Lent. Over the course of the first four days of Great Lent, Great Compline is served, with the reading of the Great Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which as it were sets the tone which is to resound throughout Great Lent..
The Great Canon consists of a conversation between the penitent and his own soul. The conversation begins: “Where shall I begin to weep for the actions of my wretched life? What first-fruit shall I offer O Christ in this my lamentation? But in Thy compassion grant me forgiveness of sins.” – with what shall I begin to repent, for it is so difficult.
A marvelous troparion follows: “Come wretched soul, with thy flesh to the Creator of all. Make confession to Him, and abstain henceforth from thy past brutishness; and offer to God tears of repentance.”
The words are astonishing, containing both Christian anthropology and asceticism: our flesh, an inseparable part of human nature and being, must also participate in our repentance.
The apogee of this conversation with the soul, its constant unremitting call to repentance, comes in the kontakion sung following the 6th canticle of the Canon: “My soul, O my soul, rise up! Why art thou sleeping? The end draws near and soon thou shalt be troubled. Watch, then, that Christ thy God may spare thee, for He is everywhere present and fillest all things.”
When we heed the words of the canon of St. Andrew of Crete, we have to ask ourselves: What must I do? If one were to fulfill God’s Law, as he ought, the contents of his life would be of quite a different composition. A basic distinguishing feature of the Great Canon is its extremely broad use of images and subjects taken from Sacred Scripture, from both the Old and New Testaments. Unfortunately, we do not know the Holy Bible as well as we ought, and because we do not, for many of us the names mentioned in the Great Canon mean nothing.
And yet, the Bible is not merely a history of the people of Israel. It is also a great chronicle of the soul of mankind, of the souls which would repeatedly fall and stand up again before the face of God, which repeatedly fell into sin and repeatedly repented. If we were to examine the lives of those mentioned in the Bible, we would see that each of them is presented not so much as a historical figure, an individual that did such and such, but as an individual standing before the Living God. The person’s historical or other accomplishments are accorded second place. What remains is what is most important: did that person remain faithful to God, or not. If we read the Bible and the Great Canon with that frame of reference, we will see that much of what is said about the righteous ones and sinners of antiquity is nothing less than a chronicle of our soul, of our repeated falling and rising, of our repeated sin and repentance.
And so, through the individuals and events recounted in the Great Canon, the history of the Old Testament and the New Testament passes before us. Its author points out to us our forefathers’ falling into sin, and the corruption of the original world. He points to Noah’s virtues and the bitterness and lack of repentance shown by the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. He resurrects for us the memory of the righteous patriarchs and valiant men: Moses, Joshua son of Nun, Gideon and Jepthah; he allows us to look at the King David’s piety, his fall and touching repentance; he points out to us Ahab’s and Jezebel’s impiety, and also the great paradigms of repentance – the Ninevites, Manasseh, the harlot, and the wise thief. He accords special attention to Mary of Egypt, and more than once stops the reader at the Cross and at the Holy Sepulchre of our Lord. Everywhere, he teaches repentance, humility, prayer, and self-denial. It is in these examples that the exhortation to the soul constantly takes place – [O my soul] remember this righteous one; thus did he please God; remember that righteous one as well; thus did he please God; you have done nothing comparable.
The Bible speaks of some individuals in a positive light, and about others in a negative one. We must emulate the one, and not the other.
“Riding in the chariot of the virtues, Elijah was lifted up to heaven, high above earthly things. Reflect, my soul, upon his ascent.” – Reflect, O my soul, upon the ascent of the righteous ones of the Old Testament.
“O wretched soul, always thou hast imitated the polluted thoughts of Gehazi. Cast from thee, at least in thine old age, his love of money. Flee from the fire of hell, turn away from thy wickedness.” - At least in old age, rid yourself of Gehazi’s avarice, O soul, and leaving behind your evil deeds, avoid the fires of hell.
As we can see, the texts are fairly difficult, and therefore, it is essential to prepare well for the Great Canon, so that we might apprehend it.
One should not imagine that repentance consists of rooting around in one’s personal sins, engaging in self-flagellation, and striving to expose in oneself as much evil and darkness as possible. To truly repent is to turn from the darkness to the light, from sin to righteousness, to understand that our life has been unworthy of its high calling, to confess before God how insignificant we are, and confess that our only hope is God Himself. True repentance is understanding that, while we do not possess the power to become true Christians, God is capable of making us so. As it says in the Great Canon “wheresoever God wishes, the order of nature is overcome.”.