In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am returning today to my extended series of remarks about the mass and its structure and meaning. We have looked – albeit with interruptions – at the prayers of preparation, extraneous to the mass itself, as well as at the ritual that accompanies the entrance of the ministers into the sanctuary, properly called the “Introit.” Today I would like to turn to the next element of the mass: the prayer, “Kyrie eleison.”
The phrase “Kyrie eleison,” is Greek and means “Lord, have mercy.” It has been a part of the liturgy of the Western church since at least the 400’s AD. While the cry “Lord, have mercy!” resonates with the general theme of Scripture, as well as with particular passages where people cry out to God, and even to other people, to have mercy on them, this prayer within the context of the liturgy is still remarkable. For example, consider two conspicuous features of the “Kyrie eleison”: 1) it is usually untranslated, and 2) it is usually repeated nine times – with the three middle repetitions taking the slightly different form, “Christe eleison,” – “Christ, have mercy.” Even during the many centuries when the liturgy of the Western church was in Latin, the “Kyrie eleison” was sung or said nine times, and in always Greek. Even in the non-Greek-speaking, so-called “Oriental” churches – like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Church of Egpyt, and the Eastern churches that use the Syriac language and the west-Syrian liturgy associated with the city of Antioch – the Kyrie was always sung in Greek, and not in the relevant liturgical language.
The Kyrie eleison’s liturgical use can be traced to a kind of litany with which we are familiar, because it was restored to the liturgy of the Episcopal Church in the revision of the American Book of Common Prayer in 1979, and we use it every Sunday. We know it as the “Prayers of the People” or the “Intercessions.” Anciently, this series of prayers was called the “ektenes” from a word having to do with the “extended” nature of the prayers. The form of these prayers, much as we use them today, was borrowed by the Church of Rome from the churches of the East, and perhaps chief among them from the church at Jerusalem. In the year 390, a nun named Egeria, from what is now France, travelled to Jerusalem and wrote about what she saw and experienced there, especially with respect to how Christians in Jerusalem worshipped. She described a series of intercessions at the end of Evening Prayer, during which, as she said, a deacon would recite prayer petitions and “as he spoke each of the names, a crowd of boys stood there and answered him each time, ‘Kyrie eleison,’ [or] as we say, Lord have mercy; their cry is without end.”
The liturgical scholar, Fr. Joseph Jungmann, writes that these “ektenes,” came to occupy much the same place as our own “Prayers of the People,” and that they had much the same form and content – “As a rule there are prayers for the whole Church, for the clergy, for the people and the [civic] ruler, for those on a journey and for the sick, for the benefactors of the Church and for the poor, and for peace.” Always, after each petition, the people singing “Kyrie eleison,” or “Lord, have mercy.”
In a letter to one Bishop John of Syracuse, Pope Saint Gregory the Great wrote in the sixth century about the usage of the prayer “Kyrie eleison” in the Roman Church. He said: “in daily masses we suppress some things that are usually said [in the longer prayer-litany], and say only Kyrie Eleison, [and] Christe Eleison, so as to devote ourselves a little longer to these words of deprecation,” (Book IX, Letter 12).
Astute students of our own liturgy will note that at the Easter Vigil there is no Kyrie Eleison at the mass itself, and that is because it is included in the Litany that is sung during the procession to and from the font, which immediately precedes the opening rite of the Easter mass, properly so-called. This ritual usage is likewise very ancient, and hints at the origins of the Kyrie eleison in the “ektenes” prayers of the Eastern churches.
That is something of the historical origin of the Kyrie eleison, and the manner by which it entered the liturgy of the Latin Church, a hint at why it remains conspicuously untranslated, as well as a hint at its nine-fold repetition. In summary, the longer litanies of which it was the response, as at our Prayers of the People, were probably borrowed from the Greek-speaking Church at Jerusalem by pilgrims from the West around the fourth century. And as Gregory the Great intimated in his letter to Bishop John of Syracuse, the petitions came to be eliminated during “ordinary” time as part of a general Latin tendency toward economy, as well as to clarify the deprecatory nature of the Kyrie eleison: in a very fundamental way, we are simply begging God to show us his mercy.
As one might expect, as the ektenes evolved into the nine-fold Kyrie eleison, which is essentially three groups of three invocations, a mystic significance was attached to the numbers. Or perhaps it is better to think that an in-built mystic significance was noticed in them. Again, Fr. Joseph Jungmann notes that when the nine-fold invocation “reached Gallic territory where the struggle against Arianism still rumbled and boomed occasionally,” the Trinitarian connection became explicit. Arianism, you may remember, is the heresy that says while Jesus may have been really great, he wasn’t exactly God. Trinitarian Christianity stands radically at odds with this belief, confessing as we do that Jesus Christ really is God with the same “godness” as God, such that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are not three gods, but one God. As St. Gregory of Nyssa put it: “For how could He Who is truly the Son of God and Himself God be conceived as something else differing from the nature of the Father?” (“Against Eunomius” – Eunomius being a particularly infamous Arian heretic).
So we can begin to see how the nine-fold Kyrie eleison is a cryptic confession of the Holy Trinity, and this understanding is further implied by the inclusion in the Kyrie of the middle group of invocations, explicitly of Christ: Kyrie eleison… Christe eleison… Kyrie eleison. It is, in effect, a prayerful summary of the Athanasian Creed: “So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord.” And we beg the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, to have mercy on us.
Finally, I would like to say something about the succinct and deprecatory nature of the prayer: Lord, have mercy. It is indeed a very appropriate thing for us to cry to the Lord. Someone, some years ago, came to see me in my office and said that he was having serious trouble praying for the president, because he seriously disagreed with his policies and thought that his leadership was bad for the country. What was he supposed to pray for? If he prayed for the boilerplate “blessing” or “prosperity” or whatever for the president, he was afraid that his prayers might actually be heard and that America might be wrecked. I pointed out to him the precise wording of our intercessions at mass, and suggested that he let them guide his personal prayer. And of course, at our intercessions at mass, we pray, “For our Nation, our president, and for all in authority… Lord have mercy.” “Kyrie eleison.”
This very ancient form of prayer presumes nothing, but throws itself heedlessly and entirely into the arm’s of God. There is nothing more appropriate to pray for, with respect to our friends and family, our nation, our president and all in authority, our enemies, and for ourselves, than that God’s mercy would be manifest in our lives, in the ways that he alone knows to be best. God is working-out the redemption of the world, inexorably and according to his secret and infinite wisdom, and the very best that we can do is to cooperate with that divine work, saying with the Blessed Mother: “Be it done to me, and to all my affairs and to all that concerns me, according to thy Word, O Lord.” If we can but continually bathe in the river of God’s mercy, then there will be nothing left to worry about, nothing left to desire.
Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison.
Christe elieson, Christe elieson, Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.