Kyrie eleison

Katrina DowlingMusic1 Comment

Kyrie eleison means “Lord, have mercy,” a phrase that appears often in popular song and speech, perhaps because it voices our response in the face of the world’s largeness and our smallness – whether we’re overwhelmed by life’s demands or lost in wonder. But what does “Lord, have mercy” give utterance to in liturgy? More than just a sense of lack within ourselves, notes Ron Byars: “it is both a prayer and an affirmation of confidence that the Lord will have mercy upon us.”[1]

This connection is expanded upon in Nick and Anita Haigh’s song “Kyrie eleison (empty, broken).” The refrain kyrie eleison punctuates statements that alternate between contrition and confidence in the first three verses, but move completely to affirmation in the final two verses:

Empty, broken, here I stand,
kyrie eleison.
Touch me with your healing hand,
kyrie eleison.
Take my arrogance and pride,
kyrie eleison.
Wash me in your mercy’s tide,
kyrie eleison.

chorus:  Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, kyrie eleison.

When my faith has all but gone,
kyrie eleison.
give me strength to carry on.
kyrie eleison.
When my dreams have turned to dust,
kyrie eleison.
in you, O Lord, I put my trust.
kyrie eleison.

When my heart is cold as ice,
kyrie eleison.
your love speaks of sacrifice.
kyrie eleison.
Love that sets the captives free.
kyrie eleison.
Oh, pour compassion down on me.
kyrie eleison.

You’re the voice that calms my fears,
kyrie eleison.
you’re the laughter, dries my tears.
kyrie eleison.
You’re my music, my refrain –
kyrie eleison.
help me sing your song again.
kyrie eleison.

Humble heart of holiness,
kyrie eleison.
kiss me with your tenderness.
kyrie eleison.
Jesus, faithful friend and true,
kyrie eleison.
all I am I give to you.
kyrie eleison.

Does it remind you of a psalm? It also reminds me of Larry Gillick’s point that mercy is a relational gesture that reaches to you and smiles upon you. It is the beginning of your rising after you’ve fallen and it’s the means of your continuing to grow and flourish. Gillick’s analogy is of a caring adult with a young child who is learning to walk:

[When the child falls down,] the little one might want to cry and look to you for your response. Your smile, your outreaching hands, your gentle touch, is the beginning of his or her rising.

What would happen if your disappointment and anger at the child’s failure were to show on your face and in your gestures? The child’s image of self would be quite negative, and the getting up again would be slower, if at all.

God’s mercy is more than forgiveness; it is also about raising us up that we might continue learning how to walk in God’s ways. Mercy is not merely a judicial action, a court decision. God’s mercy is a relational gesture that flows from the very centre of God’s creative and sustaining love for us.[2]

Eugenio Zampighi, "First Steps" - detail

Eugenio Zampighi, “First Steps” – detail

The intimate imagery of the song, especially in the last two verses, is suggestive of such a sustaining love. So we might draw a parallel between praying “Lord, have mercy” and the tumbled child looking to the trusted adult for a response. Does this picture agree with the image of relationship with God that you get when you sing the Kyrie?

In the next post I’ll return to this contemporary song and show you a connection between its music and early Kyrie chants.

 

[1] Ronald P. Byars, What language shall I borrow? The Bible and Christian worship (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 41.

[2] Larry Gillick, “For the Journey: Learning God’s Ways,” in Andy Alexander, Maureen McCann Waldron and Larry Gillick, Retreat in the Real World (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2008), 62-63.

One Comment on “Kyrie eleison”

  1. A beautiful use of the Kyrie, Katrina & the analogy of the child & parent captures exactly my sense of the relational & sometimes immediate gift
    of God’s mercy in response to personal prayer.

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