February 8, 1998
Brother John Raymond
In the Penitential Rite of the Mass we, through various formula, express our sorrow for sins committed. It is important to realize that when the priest says, "May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins and bring us into everlasting life" this is not a sacramental absolution such as we receive in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However, if we have true compunction for our venial sins during this Rite, they are forgiven. Part of our expression of compunction is the Kyrie Eleison, Greek for "Lord have mercy." This prayer is very old, even pre-Christian. (Cf. Ps. 4, 2; 6, 3; 9, 14; 25, 11; 121, 3; Isa., 32, 2; Tob., 8, 10, etc.) In the New Testament its form occurs repeatedly (Cf. Matt., 9, 27; 20, 30; 15, 22; Mark, 10, 47; Luke, 16, 24; 17, 13).
The Kyrie is also an expression used constantly in all Christian liturgies. A person in the second century quotes it saying, "Invoking God we say 'Kyrie Eleison.'" A short liturgical history of the Kyrie gives us the first certain instance of its use in the eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions. Here it is the answer of the people to the various litanies chanted by the deacon. The first evidence of its use in the West is in the third canon of the Second Council of Vaison in 529. It reads, "Since, both in the Apostolic See as also in all the provinces of the East and in Italy a sweet and most pious custom has been introduced, that Kyrie Eleison be said with great insistence and compunction, it seems good to us, too, that this holy custom be introduced at Matins and Mass and Vespers." (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, Vol. 8) The next famous witness to its use in the West is Pope St. Gregory I (590-604). He writes to John of Syracuse pointing out the difference between the Kyrie use at Rome and in the East. Here we learn for the first time that Kyrie Eleison is alternated with Christe Eleison.
The 6th century Roman Order of the Mass describes a not-yet-fixed number of Kyries sung at the Mass. It says that choir leader watches the Pope during the Kyrie in case "he should give him a sign if he wants to change the number of the litany." (Ibid) Towards the 8th century the Pope reduced the acclamations to just nine. The first three were addressed to God the Father, the second three to God the Son (which in Rome became Christe Eleison) and the last three to the Holy Spirit.
In ancient times acclamations like the Kyrie have been used as praises and hymns with which the people received a triumphant warrior after a battle. They celebrated his victory, as well as sought his favor. This ancient meaning is brought to the supernatural level in the liturgy. The General Instruction for the Roman Missal tells us that the Kyrie is a song by which the faithful praise the Lord and implore His mercy. (Cf. #30)
To enrich our liturgical usage of this simple acclamation perhaps it would be helpful to look up the various Biblical passages mentioned above and meditate on them. Then we can acclaim in heartfelt prayer, "Lord have mercy on us. Christ have mercy on us!"