Posted on July 1st, 2010
Note: This article was originally published in the July/August issue of Tidings, the newsletter of Immanuel Lutheran Church and School.
Why Do We Worship the Way We Do? Part III: The Kyrie
Topping both the pop- and rock-music charts in 1986 was a song by the band Mr. Mister called “Kyrie.” A high-school student at the time, I was a radio junkie (music of all kinds throughout the day, but I would fall asleep listening to broadcasts of Twins baseball games or North Stars hockey games). I liked to figure out how to play popular songs, and try to recreate the sounds on my synthesizer (Yamaha DX-7, probably the coolest thing I’ve ever owned). So as I listened to that song repeatedly, I kept asking myself, “Why are they carrying a laser?” It sounded to me like they were singing in the song’s chorus, “Carry a laser down the road that I must travel; carry a laser through the darkness of the night.” Hmm. Perhaps it’s a Star Wars reference?
Nope. It was Greek. And thus, what I’m sure I would have learned at church if I was paying attention, came to me through the unlikely source of American pop radio. The Greek phrase in the chorus was taken straight from the liturgy of both the Western and Eastern Churches: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.”) It’s the first major thing that happens in our Divine Service, coming right after the Introit (entrance Psalm). The Kyrie is the first of the five “Ordinaries” of the Mass (“Ordinary” meaning it’s used every Sunday, as opposed to the “Propers,” the things that change every Sunday, such as the Bible readings, hymns, etc.).
So, how did the Kyrie end up in this important place in our worship service? It came when the church still worshipped in the ancient Greek language. The people of a town would cry out this phrase when the king came to visit; a king would be called “Lord,” and by asking him for mercy, they expected His visit would bring favors upon their city. Many times in the Gospels, people used the same phrase, “Kyrie, eleison!” (“Lord, have mercy!”) when Jesus drew near. These people saw Jesus as a king and hoped that He would have favor on them.
For example, a blind man (Mark 10:47) kept on crying out, “Lord, have mercy!” until Jesus came to Him. When Jesus came, He restored the man’s sight. The same kind of thing happened in Matthew 15:22. There, a woman whose daughter was very sick prayed to Jesus as He drew near, “Lord, have mercy!” Jesus heard her prayer and healed her sick little girl.
By these examples, we learn that our prayer for mercy is more than a prayer for forgiveness of sins. It includes that, of course, but is also much more. The Lord’s mercy encompasses every aspect of our broken lives, and we pray for His favor and healing on our sick bodies, our corrupt minds, and our twisted world. To emphasize this, sometimes we use the phrase, “Lord, have mercy” as a response in a litany, such as in Divine Service settings 1 and 2: “For the peace from above and for our salvation let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy. For the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the Church of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.” This comes from the great Litany of St. John Chrysostom, which goes on and on with the many areas of life which need the Lord’s mercy. (At Immanuel, we sometimes use that entire litany as the Prayer of the Church.)
What can you take away from this? Praying the Kyrie, calling out “Lord, have mercy!” is something that a Christian should do every day and in every situation. The church’s liturgy is teaching us also how to pray when we are alone or with our families. Thus the ’80′s hit actually captured the application of this ancient Greek prayer: “Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel; Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night.” In the darkness of the night, let this prayer be your own, in the confidence that our Lord will indeed show you His mercy.
Your unworthy undershepherd,
Note: Portions of this article are adapted from “The Little Service Book” by Berthold von Schenk.