About the Kyrie Hymn

by Pastor Bernt

On many Sundays in the church year, especially during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, we open with the singing of Kyrie eleison, Greek for “Lord have mercy.” We alternate “Lord” and “Christ” and sometimes also prayers for peace.  We sing it repeatedly, even nine “have mercies” total (I read in one of my various sources that it’s supposed to correspond with nine choirs of angels in Heaven).  Then, during the prayers of intercession later in the service, the refrain often comes up again, over and over: “Lord in your mercy … hear our prayer.”

Why all the repetition?  Maybe because it’s such a basic, bedrock sort of prayer.  When a pilgrim from West, Egeria, first heard it used in the Christian East, it was led by children.  And its use predates Christianity.  People would hail the Emperor with it: “Kyrie eleison!”  I think of how a simple prayer used in repetition becomes a mantra.  When you’ve just opened up that really big utility bill, it’s “Lord, have mercy!”  When you’re tossing and turning in bed, stressed out, you might pray: “Lord, have mercy on me!”  The Eastern Orthodox church has a whole tradition of meditation based on a version they call the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  When the singing of Kyrie Eleison was first used in the worship (4th century?), it may have been during both indoor and outdoor processions.  It’s not just a prayer for Sunday morning, but for each step we take through life.

But why is “mercy” what we need?  I think of how this prayer invites us into a certain posture: that of a beggar.  Imagine that?  Maybe that’s not how others see you.  They might think of you as a mover and shaker, someone who’s got it all together.  You can and should be the one to take care of yourself, you’re capable, a bread-winner.  What you have, you achieved and you’re entitled to.  But then you sing “Lord have mercy?” Aren’t you saying, “what I have – I’m not entitled to?  It’s not owed; it’s given.  It’s all grace.  I’m not the master of my fate.  I’m a creature depending on a Creator.  God (not me) is the one holding it together – holding us together.  The prayer “Lord have mercy” equalizes us: ultimately, I’m no different from the other beggars.  The failures and sins in this world run through my heart, too.

But about this word: there’s more to it than “dog-eat-dog, to each her own.”  The thing is: the Lord really IS merciful.  When people cried to the Emperor for mercy, they probably didn’t expect much.  But when the foreign woman (Matthew 15:22) and the blind man (Mark 10:46) cried to Jesus for mercy, he heard and he responded.  Even now, says Paul, the Spirit of Jesus keeps a mercy prayer alive in our hearts: inward groaning and sighs to deep for words (Romans 8).  When we say it on our lips, repeat the prayer for mercy like a mantra, we’re being constantly redirected toward the ever-flowing source of life and hope.  What we sing and pray in worship can in this way shape our walk, how we see ourselves and what we believe.

About the Gloria hymn

The hymn “Glory to God in the highest” is familiar to (and maybe memorized by) anyone used to Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal or other so-called “liturgical churches.”  But do we really ponder what we’re singing?

First, a little history: this “Gloria” is one part of the western, medieval (and later) mass, which classical music lovers know goes from the Kyrie (Lord have mercy) to Gloria, Credo (I believe), Sanctus (Holy Holy) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).  Traditionally, these were sung in place of what we now usually think of as hymns (like Amazing Grace or Be Thou My Vision).  During the earliest centuries and outside the West, different music or texts were used.  The Gloria originated as a hymn for morning prayer and when it was first used at Mass, only the Pope or bishops could sing it (priests could sing it only on Easter).

To sing those words – “Glory to God” – is to take a break from cynicism.  So often during the week we feel let down by people.  Our role models and leaders and neighbors turn out to be not so glorious.  Indeed, we have issues with and complaints against God.  “Glory” may not be what I’m feeling, but a song I overhear and join in.  The Gloria is also known as the “Hymn of Angels,” because the first verse is what the Shepherds hear the Angels singing on Christmas: “Glory to God in the Highest and peace to his people on earth.”  And the Angels, we imagine, they see clearly God’s full majesty, beyond the struggles that cloud us.  By taking up their song, we want to open ourselves to see and feel that glory and beauty more clearly.  It’s doing what Paul says: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (from Philippians 4)

Notice also how the Gloria is full of political language, king, lord, high places, and the throne of God in each of the three parts (Father, Son and Trinity):

  • FATHER Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory.
  • SON Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us; you are seated at the right hand of the Father: receive our prayer.
  • GODHEAD/TRINITY For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Updates of the Gloria remove this language, I think because we don’t want to associate God with what’s oppressive and authoritarian.  But with any metaphor, there’s an “is” and an “isn’t.”  Jesus is a lamb in that he’s gentle but he’s not fluffy and four-legged.  God isn’t an oppressive patriarch; but in some ways, I think we still need to say God is Lord.

A key line is “you alone are Lord.”  We’re not just cynical, we’re afraid: of the people at the top, with powerful weapons and unimaginable wealth, of white supremacy, seductive violence or hatred, depression, disease and death and whatever we’re addicted to.  Sing “you alone are Lord.”  None of those so-called lords can stand against the only true Lord!  In a world under the foot of demonic and Roman oppression, Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God.  The Gloria is a pledge of allegiance to this kingdom and a song not just of hope but of victory, to give us courage no matter what.

Our king is an anti-king; he’s the Lamb sent not to beat back his foes by superior military might and lift up the privileged few; he’s the self-giving One who wants nothing more than to take the wrongs and sin away from the villains and the heroes, the whole world, bringing us together in peace and awe and worship.  Thanks be to God!

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