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KYRIE ELEISON or LORD HAVE MERCY (Penitential Act)

Back in the Christmas of 1985 the song “Kyrie” by the rock band Mr. Mister was all over the radio waves.  Religious people were surprised to hear the Greek words that are sometimes chanted at Mass:  Kyrie Eleison or Lord, have mercy. While I cannot speak for what was in the mind of the composer, one should take note that the image of wind to which it refers is often associated with the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit.  After a cry for divine mercy, the song begins: “The wind blows hard against this mountainside, across the sea into my soul. It reaches into where I cannot hide, setting my feet upon the road. My heart is old, it holds my memories. My body burns a gem-like flame. Somewhere between the soul and soft machine is where I find myself again.”  We are composites of body and spirit.  While we live in the present, each of us is haunted by the past.  Our memories are a part of us.  We are pilgrims in this world, seeking to find ourselves and meaning. Nothing is hidden from God. His providence mysteriously guides our footsteps.  Crying out Kyrie Eleison over and over, the singer is saying Lord, have mercy “down the road that I must travel— through the darkness of the night.” This would not make a bad prayer. Next, the singer reflects upon the dreams of youth and wonders about the path he has taken.  How many times have we regretted some wrong choices or just different turns and thought about how our lives could have been very different? Ultimately we are all pilgrims and as Christians we are called to take up our crosses so as to follow Jesus. As fishers of men we are commissioned to take others with us into the boat of the Church, companions for the journey.  This too is referenced in the song: “Kyrie Eleison where I’m going, will you follow? Will you follow? Kyrie Eleison on a highway in the night. . . . Kyrie Eleison on a highway in the light. Kyrie Eleison down the road that I must travel.”

While we may live in a society that distorts virtue and vice, the Church has seen the emergence of the Divine Mercy devotion.  We admit we are sinners and that we desperately need forgiveness and healing. This mercy is linked to reconciliation with others, a truth proposed in Mark 11:25 prior to prayer and worship.  It is also the admonition of the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is the meaningful backdrop to the Confiteor as well.  The Kyrie at Mass will often include tropes or insertions to focus where we need assistance: healing the contrite, calling sinners and intercession.  Note that in the New Testament the forgiveness of sin and the liberation of the possessed is often associated with physical healings— the lame walk— the blind see— the deaf hear— the mute speak— the lepers are cleansed.  There is an intimate connection between the body and the soul. Indeed, the justified and glorified dead in Christ will be restored body and soul.  We will not be disembodied ghosts forever.  Our bodies will not remain corpses or dust. We will be made brand new and imperishable. The identity of each of us as a complete composite must be reassembled and healed. I have often thought that should we find ourselves facing eminent death, the cry we should make is precisely Kyrie Eleison or Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.  If this prayer should come from the heart and in true faith, we are assured that it will be heard.  The Mass celebrates both a saving death and resurrection.  The Mass is the incursion of eternity into our immediate time and space.  Thus it makes sense that we chant Lord, have mercy as we enter into the great mystery.

The Kyrie switches from “Lord, have mercy” to “Christ, have mercy” and back again to “Lord, have mercy.”  Our worship is directed to the Father, but it is Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity, that makes possible our approach to God.  We struggle with our sins and our tendency to sin or concupiscence.  St. Paul speaks of this in Romans 7:19: “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” We begin our worship as realists who know we are undeserving.  We are culpable for the passion and death of Jesus— the terrible price of our sins.  But we seek to take the Lord up on his offer of mercy.  As with the disciples, the devil has sought to claim us but Jesus snatches us from his hand. “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).  Jesus vocalizes this prayer from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Toward the end of the penitential act there is what we might call a conditional or subjunctive “absolution” prayer. It is the remnant of a two-part oration from the former version of the Roman rite.  The Mass prayer (the Indulgentiam) was thought redundant and overly resembling the formula from confession: “May the Almighty and merciful God grant us + pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.” Particularly given the use of the vernacular, its omission helps to avoid confusion with the sacrament of penance. The Misereatur is now said once by the priest: “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.”

The penitential rite can be replaced by a sprinkling rite, especially during the Easter season.  We are reminded of our baptism when we became adopted sons and daughters of the Father, members of the Church, gifted with sanctifying grace and forgiven of sin. What we were can be restored by the gift of the Lord’s mercy. We are all Zacchaeus up a tree, and only Jesus can get us down (Luke 19:1-10).

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