What is the Kyrie Eleison?

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Kyrie Eleison “Lord Have Mercy” Christie Eleison “Christ Have Mercy”

During worship we sing a small piece of music after our corporate confession of sin. It is too short to
be a hymn and too ‘liturgical’ to be a contemporary praise song, even though we repeat the short chorus several times. This little piece of music feels like neither a typical song nor a prayer but something in between . . . something that most churches never experience. It is truly ‘sung’ prayer that can be deeply meaningful.

What I’m describing somewhat obtusely is singing a traditional “kyrie” – an ancient church prayer based in the Old Testament prayers of Psalm 51:1, 123:3, et al and present throughout the New Testament as a well known exhortation (Matthew 9:27, 20:30, 15:22; Mark 10:47; Luke 16:24, 17:13) A cry to the Lord – “Lord, have mercy.”

No one is entirely sure when the practice of singing it came into being in the NT church. St. John Chrysostom, an early church father records its use in the 4th century and its popularity spreads from there into all corners of the church.

Kyrie Eleison is Greek for “Lord, have mercy” and like “Amen” and “Hallelujah” have survived in the church’s use in their original expression. The Kyrie Eleison along with the Gloria Patri and other pieces are what are traditionally called “service music.” They are usually short pieces of music that have been written to serve a specific context in a worship service and they express important and universal forms of prayer, i.e. confession and praise. Sometimes they correspond to specific passages of scripture (Magnificat – Mary’s Song in Luke 1:46-55 ; Nunc Dimittis – Simeon’s Song in Luke 2:29-32; The Venite – O Come Let us sing – Psalm 95) but not always.

The prayer, “Kyrie, eleison,” “Lord, have mercy” derives from a Biblical phrase. Greek ἐλέησόν με κύριε “have mercy on me, Lord” is the Septuagint translation of the phrase הָהוְי יִנֵּנָ חfound often in Psalms (4:1, 6:2, 9:13, 25:16, 27:7, 30:10, 31:9, 51:1, 86:16, 123:3)

In the New Testament, the Greek phrase occurs three times in Matthew: Matthew 15:22: the Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” (Ἐλέησόν με κύριε υἱὲ Δαβίδ) Matthew 17:15: “Lord, have mercy on my son” (Κύριε ἐλέησόν μου τὸν υἱόν) Matthew 20:30f, two unnamed blind men call out to Jesus, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David.” (Ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς κύριε υἱὸς Δαβίδ)

In the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) the despised tax collector who cries out “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” is contrasted with the smug Pharisee who believes he has no need for forgiveness.

Mark 10:46, where blind Bartimaeus cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” In the biblical text, the phrase is always personalized by an explicit object (such as, “on me”, “on us”, “on my son”),while in the Eucharistic celebration it can be seen more as a general expression of confidence in God’s love.

As Presbyterian we sing the Kyrie in response to our confession as a sung expression of our need for God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. My hope and prayer for us as a congregation as it is that as we sing these words, whether in English or in Greek, that they will reflect are deep need for God‘s presence in our life. And that our sung response becomes a humbling prayer that we offer to God as we receive God’s grace mercy and forgiveness.

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