St Andrew of Crete (660-740 AD) was a bishop, born in Damascus, who served the Church in various ways until being sent to Crete, which was his final place of office. He is counted as one of the most prolific and important hymnographers of the Orthodox Church, traditionally being known as the first hymnographer to write the type of hymn known as the canon.
Amongst his works are major hymns sung on the feasts of Christmas and of the Holy Apostles, Saints Peter and Paul. His most well known work though, is the Great Canon that is chanted in part each evening during the first Week of Lent at the Compline service and in its entirety at the Matins Service of Thursday of the Fifth week of Lent.
Canons are short hymns written in groups called odes, which follow the meter and tune of a prototype called the heirmos. The Great Canon consists of 280 canons grouped in 9 odes, 250 written by St Andrew and another 30 added later in honour of the Saint himself, Saint Mary of Egypt, the Holy Apostles, the Holy Trinity and the Theotokos.
There is one major overarching theme – repentance. Unlike many other hymns and services of Great Lent which act as general reminders and motivators to repent, the Great Canon deals with the themes of repentance, sinfulness and God’s mercy in a penitential and personal way. Indeed, each of the 230 canons that St. Andrew wrote is written in the first person e.g. “More than all have I sinned; I alone have sinned against You. O God my Savior, have compassion upon me, Your creature.” or “Christ became a child and shared in my flesh; and willingly He performed all that belongs to my nature, only without sin. He set before you, my soul, an example and image of His condescension.”
To take part in this service is to experience the personal character of repentance in the Orthodox Church. We all stand alone before God in the sense that God does not judge us in comparison with others. As Fr Hopko writes “Each human being is personally judged according to God’s righteous judgement, which applies strictly to that person alone. Standing before God, one does not look at others. One looks only at God” (Ch. 10 “More than All have I sinned” from The Lenten Spring, Fr. Thomas Hopko SVSP 1983)
Source: February- March 2014 Lychnos