A Time for Self-Assessment
In preparing for Easter, we must look inward
Preparation for Pascha (Easter) is somewhat different between the Eastern and Western Churches. The Byzantine Churches increase the liturgical cycle of the week considerably with the use of canons, Psalms and troparia. One such prayer is considered the greatest example of repentance in the Eastern tradition: the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. This canon is read in parts during the first week of the Great Fast and then again in its whole form on the fifth Thursday of the fast.
Canons are poetry that are used liturgically at a number of different services (matins, compline, midnight office). The Great Canon focuses on repentance from a biblical perspective. Some commentaries say that St. Andrew looked at every instance of repentance in the Scriptures and then commented on it in his canon. The end result is one of the most honest and beautiful examples of self-reflection I have ever read. Three of the troparia stand out as particularly instructive:
“Justly was Adam dispelled from Paradise for one sin, O my Savior; but what shall my punishment be, for I have unceasingly rejected your life-giving word?”
This passage is one of my favorites, because it gets right to the point of the whole canon. Without a realization of my own sinfulness, I risk falling into presumption. But the Great Fast is not about feeling good about ourselves, rather it is about being honest about our lives. Adam did one thing, and it has affected all of creation ever since.
I don’t know about you, but I struggle to start my day and get to lunch without sinning. Am I truly aware of my own sins, especially where they exist in ministry? How do my sins affect my ministry and the parishioners? Am I actively cooperating with Christ as my Savior to heal me of these sins?
“You have heard, O my soul, how Abraham left the land of his ancestors and became a stranger upon earth; imitate his example and his resolve.”
The Church Fathers speak about the concept of spiritual burnout as acedia, or despondency. It is closely connected with the later-developed concept of sloth, but it has some additional meaning. Acedia is the temptation that drives the monk to leave the desert, even for good reasons, and to re-enter the world. St. Andrew commands us not only to leave the world of sin, but also to resolve to never return. How resolved am I in my commitment to be in the world but not of it? What excuses do I make when I stray, and how can I renew my commitment to clothe myself in Christ?
“I confess to you, O Christ my King, that I have sinned; I have sinned as did the brothers of Joseph, who once sold the offspring of wisdom and purity.”
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There is a repeated theme throughout the Scriptures that sees someone selling the greatest for something lesser. This is shown when Ishmael sold his birthright to his brother for dinner, or when Judas sold the God-Man for 30 pieces of silver. So often we sell salvation for but a passing, momentary pleasure. What have I traded for grace lately? Do I take time to meditate on the value of what I have been given in Christ?
Last, I would point out the timing of the canon (which can be found in its entirety online), specifically that it is prayed at both the beginning of the Great Fast and in the middle of it. This repetition is therapeutic, because the process of the Great Fast ultimately is one of healing — healing from our sinfulness, healing through repentance, healing through fasting.
The fast is not about punishing ourselves; it is about finding healing through self-honesty and turning to our Divine Physician, Jesus Christ.
Holy Father Andrew, pray to God for us!
FATHER DEACON BASIL RYAN BALKE is a Byzantine deacon, licensed professional counselor, director of Mount Tabor Counseling (mounttaborcounseling.com) and one of the hosts of the Catholic Psyche Podcast (catholicpsyche.com).