Thursday, April 18, 2013

"The Bethlehemite Is Killing Me": A Reflection on the Great Canon

By His Eminence Metropolitan Seraphim of Kastoria

In the Bishopric of the Holy Metropolis of Kastoria there is an icon of the Master Christ which dates to the 15th century and is known as "The Bethlehemite".

This title does not only come from the famous Bethlehem of Judea, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, but this title appears even in the famous Great Canon of Saint Andrew the Bishop of Crete, which is chanted according to ancient order on the Fifth Thursday of Great Lent.

Seeing Christ's healing temple opened, and how health streams from Him to Adam, the devil suffered and was stricken. Then he wailed as if in mortal danger and to his friends raised a bitter howl: 'What shall I do to the Son of Mary? The Bethlehemite is killing me, Who is everywhere present and fills all things.'

This Canon, which according to Saint Andrew gives us the ways of compunction, has the following characteristics:

1. It shows us sin. In our Orthodox tradition, as Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou writes, sin does not simply have a moral sense, but it is chiefly theological. Basil the Great calls it the alienation of the soul.

The God-bearer John the Damascene characterizes it as the departure from the good, that is, it is the presence of darkness and the lack of light. Other Fathers of the Church call it the unnatural state of the soul. Communion between man and God is natural, and the absence of this communion is the presence of darkness and thus sin.

It is the "other law", according to Saint Paul, the darkening of the mind and the unclothing of the abundant grace of the Holy Spirit. The clothing of the garments of skin, even, is nothing other than corruption and mortality. This was committed by Adam as a fruit of his false theosis, as was again stated by Saint John the Damascene.

2. The Great Canon presents us all with repentance. This means the awareness of the change of the natural state of the soul, that is, the awareness of sin and thus the return to God. Which is why they call repentance the safe road, despite the obstacles, which lead to purification and further on to illumination and theosis.

It is characterized as a moment of grace within the heart of man when the life-giving grace of God comes to man, and reveals to man the dreadful situation which dominates the inner world of our soul and prepares it to return to God. This is not a formal confession, as we unconsciously do during the days of our great feasts, but a complete change. It is a turn in a different direction in order to get rid of the passions.

Self-awareness will help us in our repentance, as well as humility and primarily the mercy of God. This is why David characteristically said: "Your mercy, O Lord, will follow me all the days of my life."

3. The third thing Saint Andrew shows us in his Great Canon is the philanthropy of God. God is "good and the lover of mankind", the "fullness of love, compassion and philanthropy". He is the One who waits and persists till the last moment the return of His deluded sheep. He is the One who forgives and rewards even till "the eleventh hour".

To Him do we resort and we ask of Him His mercy and His grace. And if we are clergy of every grade, if we are rulers or ruled, whatever position we possess in society, we need to live this repentance and return with humility and tears to God, and with the sacred hymnographer we also repeat:

I have sinned, offended and rejected Thy commandment, for I have advanced in sins and added wounds to my sores. But in Thy compassion have mercy on me, O God of our Fathers.
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos

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