The Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete. Explanation, themes, texts, biography


Explanation of the Canon liturgical format

Short Explanation of the Great Canon

Themes of the Great Canon.

Full Text of the Great Canon as chanted on 5 days of Great Lent

Biography of St Andrew


The Great Canon of St Andrew, Bishop of Crete, is the longest canon in all of our services, and is associated with Great Lent, since the only times it is appointed to be read in church are the first four nights of Great Lent (Clean Monday through Clean Thursday, at Great Compline, when it is serialized) and at Matins for Thursday of the fifth week of Great Lent, when it is read in its entirety (in this latter service, the entire life of St Mary of Egypt is also read).


There is no other sacred hymn which compares with this monumental work, which St Andrew wrote for his personal meditations.  Nothing else has its extensive typology and mystical explanations of the scripture, from both the Old and New Testaments.  One can almost consider this hymn to be a “survey of the Old and New Testament”. Its other distinguishing features are a spirit of mournful humility, hope in God, and complex and beautiful Trinitarian Doxologies and hymns to the Theotokos in each Ode.


The canon is a dialog between St. Andrew and his soul. The ongoing theme is an urgent exhortation to change one’s life. St Andrew always  mentions his own sinfulness placed in juxtaposition to God’s mercy, and uses literally hundreds of references to good and bad examples from the OT and NT to “convince himself” to repent.


A canon is an ancient liturgical hymn, with a very strict format. It consists of a variable number of parts, each called an “ode”. Most common canons have eight Odes, numbered from one to nine, with Ode 2 being omitted. The most penitential canons have all nine odes. Some canons have only three Odes, such as many of the canons in the “Triodion” (which means “Three Odes”).


In any case, all Odes have the same basic format.  An “Irmos” begins each Ode. This is generally sung, and each Irmos has a reference to one of the nine biblical canticles, which are selections from the Old and New Testament, which can be found in an appendix in any complete liturgical Psalter (book of Psalms, arranged for reading in the services). A variable number of “troparia” follow, which are short hymns about the subject of the canon. These are usually chanted, and not sung. After each troparion a “refrain” is chanted. At the end of each Ode, another hymn, called the “Katavasia”, either  the Irmos previously sung, or one like it is sung.


The troparia of the Great Canon in all its twelve Odes are usually chanted by the priest in the center of the church, with the choir singing the Irmos and Katavasia. There are varying traditions about bows and prostrations. Some prostrate and some make the sign of the cross and bow three times after the Irmos and each troparion.

General Themes of the Great Canon.


How we should think about ourselves


Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my wretched life? What first-fruit shall I offer, O Christ, for my present lamentation? But in Thy compassion grant me release from my fallsMon:1.1


Desire to change – dialogue with the soul


Come, wretched soul, with your flesh, confess to the Creator of all. In the future refrain from you former brutishness, and offer to God tears of repentanceMon:1.2


Recognizing Reality


The end is drawing near, my soul, is drawing near! But you neither care nor prepare. The time is growing short. Rise! The Judge is at the very doors. Like a dream, like a flower, the time of this life passes. Why do we bustle about in vain? Mon:4.2


How to pray – Laments and supplications to God


Thou art the Good Shepherd; seek me, Thy lamb, and neglect no me who have gone astray Mon:3.5


OT and NT examples of righteousness and unrighteousness, for the purpose of emulation or avoidance.


Do not be a pillar of salt, my soul, by turning back; but let the example of the Sodomites frighten you, and take refuge up in Zoar.(Genesis 19:26) Thu Ode 3:5


I have reviewed all the people of the Old Testament as examples for you, my soul. Imitate the God-loving deeds of the righteous and shun the sins of the wicked.Tue Ode 8




The Great Canon was written by a holy man to teach himself the right way to live. We cannot benefit from it unless we make it a priority to stand in prayer, in the church, and listen to it, with a great desire and expectation for God’s grace to teach us and heal us. Our theology is first and foremost – experienced and prayed, and not only “studied”.



The Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete

All these texts are available at

As chanted on Monday of the first Week

As chanted on Tuesday of the first Week

As chanted on Wednesday of the first Week

As chanted on Thursday of the first Week

As chanted on Thursday of the Fifth Week

St Andrew, Archbishop of Crete.

Commemorated July 4

From the Prologue


Born in Damascus of Christian parents, he was dumb until the age of seven. When his parents took him to church for Communion, the power of speech was given to him. Such is the divine power of Communion.


He went to Jerusalem at the age of fourteen and was tonsured in the monastery of St Sava the Sanctified. In his understanding and ascesis, he surpassed many of the older monks and was an example to all. The Patriarch took him as his secretary.


When the Monothelite heresy, which taught that the Lord had no human will but only a divine one, began to rage, the Sixth Ecumenical Council met in Constantinople in 681, in the reign of Constantine IV. Theodore, Patriarch of Jerusalem, was not able to be present at the Council, and sent Andrew, then a deacon, as his representative. At the Council, Andrew showed his great gifts: his articulateness, his zeal for the Faith and his rare prudence. Being instrumental in confirming the Orthodox faith, Andrew returned to his work in Jerusalem.


He was later chosen and enthroned as archbishop of the island of Crete. As archbishop, he was greatly beloved by the people. He was filled with zeal for Orthodoxy and strongly withstood all heresy. He worked miracles through his prayers, driving the Saracens from the island of Crete by means of them. He wrote many learned books, poems and canons, of which the best-known is the Great Canon of Repentance which is read in full on the Thursday of the Fifth Week of the Great Fast.


Such was his outward appearance that, ‘looking at his face and listening to the words that flowed like honey from his lips, each man was touched and renewed’. Returning from Constantinople on one occasion, he foretold his death before reaching Crete. And so it happened. As the ship approached the island of Mitylene, this light of the Church finished his earthly course and his soul went to the Kingdom of Christ, in about the year 740.

From The Prologue from Ochrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich  ©1985 Lazarica Press, Birmingham UK

Priest Seraphim Holland    St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas


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4 Responses to “The Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete. Explanation, themes, texts, biography”

  1. I always thought, and many other people do, that the Great Canon is the most significant writing of the Church compositions. It is so ample! It’s an example of what a person is, what he should be, how he should repent; an example of CONFESSION. How open & frank a person should be – and St Andrew shows that confessing in front of God in this Canon all the depths of his soul & feelings. It is a true repentance!
    It also shows – to me, as I miss it – that we should read the Old Testament, as so much in the Canon is based on it, and what is so important in it for us.
    It shows us how we should develop into the new being, which is impossible without a thorough, sincere repentance, analysis of our state of mind, disclosing all the hidden corners to God.

    It’s an example of PRAYER.

    I also think that we should read the Great Canon not only the assigned days in the Church (though in this atmosphere it produces a very deep impression on our soul, and is always felt as we hear it for the first time, as it always overwhelms us with its poetry & depth, and each year we are struck with something new – as if first discovered – because our soul develops with the course of time), but also alone in our rooms, thoughtfully, living through each phrase. As it is both the Church, synodical creation, but also refers to each individual soul, and everyone stops & dwells on something personal in it, and sometimes it takes much time.

    For me the Canon is a motivation to study the Old Testament, as I know it very superficially!


  2. Diane Pappas says:

    Thank you for this wonderful resource. I always thought that except for a few mentioned sins in the canon that I was praying the canon with a false humility and false repentence because, as far as I knew, I hadn't done or thought many of those sins… I had done others equally bad or worse but not those in the canon and not to that degree, definitely. Then somewhere I read that we chant it and confess those sins as identification with all human beings of all time because we share a common humanity, and it is in the heart of each of us to do these sins in one form or another as we share a common propensity to sin, any sin and all sins. Since then, God in His grace and mercy has opened my eyes to so many of my past sins and sinful attitudes that have been hidden from even me. Now I can enter into the praying of the canon sincerely, from my heart, as I identify with my brothers and sisters who have lived throughout the Old Testament times because I know we share in the same flesh and blood, the same sin nature and I either would have participated in the sin mentioned or have participated in that sin in some manifestation in my own life. So thank you for the opportunity to enter more fully into the prayers of the canon through your guidance.

  3. The great canon of St. Andrew should be read and prayed about through out the year.  I heard and sung it for the first time this year (2010).

  4. […] text of the Great Canon can be viewed here. Share and […]

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