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.