Lord, have mercy. (Kyrie eleison)
Christ, have mercy. (Christe eleison)
Lord, have mercy. (Kyrie eleison)
It’s a very simple call-and-response prayer well-known to Anglicans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics the world over, and possibly to some in the Protestant traditions as well. It’s also got the distinction of being the only prayer in the Western liturgical traditions that’s actually in Greek.
But, let’s be honest, what’s the big deal with this prayer? It’s three lines long, contains only two unique sentences, and even then they only have one word difference… and what’s the big deal with swapping “Lord” with “Christ” there? It means the same thing afterall.
First of all, it’s meditative. Slow and deliberate repetition is one of the best ways people learn things. And by “learn” in the case of prayer and spirituality I really mean “internalize.” It’s one thing to ‘know’ that you’re a sinner in need of God’s mercy every day. It’s another thing to know that you’re a sinner in need of God’s mercy every day. So when this prayer is said, either in public liturgy or in private, we should be attentive to say it a little more slowly and deliberately. It’s so easy to roll it out of the mouth without even thinking about it. Like the Lord’s Prayer, it’s something we easily memorize and easily disengage from. To combat that complacency which comes naturally to so many of us, it helps to slow it down and give your heart and your mind a chance to keep up with your lips.
Also it’s worth noting that there are Eastern liturgies which call for forty Kyries in a row. In those instances you have an increased chance both to let its meaning sink in and to grow hardened and complacent. Give it a try sometime. It often takes ‘practice’ to get the hang of this style of prayer, but it can be very calming and helpful for focusing the heart and mind once you do.
Secondly, it’s like an abbreviated confession. The worship leader leads by example by crying out to God “Lord have mercy,” thus recognizing and acknowledging his or her sins and need for God’s grace. The people then respond with essentially the same confession “Christ have mercy!” None stands before God utterly pure until the Spirit’s work of sanctification is complete. And then finally the leader affirms, one more time, “Lord have mercy.” Without more helping verbs in English, this little sentence can be understood in a couple ways. It’s most recognizable as a request or petition for God to have mercy upon us, and that’s how I’m interpreting the first two iterations of it. But it can also be command or subjunctive, meaning “May God have mercy.” It’s like a prayer for forgiveness or even a pronouncement of absolution, depending upon who is speaking, and how it’s said.
There are other layers of meaning that this prayer can invoke as well. When bad news is announced, “Lord, have mercy!” is a prayerful exclamation that I hear pretty frequently. In cases like that, it’s functioning as a generic phrase for a specific prayer concern in which God’s mercy is needed and requested. So don’t try to lock down the Kyrie into too narrow a meaning; given different contexts it can be a valuable prayer resource in many different ways.
So next time you’re praying the Office or participating in the Eucharist, or exclaiming the Kyrie in some other setting, try to keep this in mind. For a short little prayer it can have a lot of depth if only we invest in it a little more. Like all good tools, it’s useless without a skillful wielder. But also like all good tools, it can vastly improve its wielder’s capabilities.