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Hymn History: Kyrie Eleison

The phrase ‘kyrie eleison’ is not an uncommon one to many Christians. Sometimes they are used as a full hymn, such as the one by Ralph Vaughn Williams in the video above, or as a simple response in a church service. These Greek words, Κύριε ἐλέησον, mean “Lord, have mercy” and have been used since pre-Christian times.


The traditional use of the Kyrie in Roman Rite of the Mass is directly after a penitential prayer (or prayer of confession, as we call it in our service), as the words clearly coincide with such a prayer. When used this way, it will appear with three lines, “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison” translating as “Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord, have mercy.” There are three invocations used to reflect the triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


The phrase itself actually appears multiple times throughout the Bible. In Matthew 9, after Jesus gave life to a dead girl, two blind men approached him saying, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” (Matthew 9.27 NIV) In Luke 18.13, Jesus tells of a tax collector that chose to stand at a distance from the temple to pray and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (NIV) The parable makes it clear that this heartfelt and simple plea is a valuable prayer.


It even appears in the old testament, in several psalms (4, 6, 9, 25, 121) and in Isaiah 33.2, proving that the phrase has a long history, as it should, as crying for divine mercy is nothing new. It was even used in a civic context about the Roman emperor in some spaces.


For millennia, this phrase has been used. It survived the many transitions in the Christian faith, travelled with Protestants when they left Catholicism, and survived many a division thereafter. It even appears in Christian rock songs now.


The phrase withstood the test of time because of its simplicity. Who among us has not asked God for mercy? We as a race know we are sinful creatures that will choose to do the wrong thing time and again, we need that mercy. And, thankfully, God does provide it.


Like the tax collector, we can use this phrase for a simple, yet powerful, prayer: “God, in your mercy.” When you don’t have the words to ask for what’s needed, you can pray this. When you truly wish well for a person, but personal feelings may muddle any longer prayer, pray this. When you need a quick prayer for guidance, use this. When you’re ready to surrender to things to God, a simple, “God, in your mercy.”


When you are feeling in a particular need, go to YouTube and search Kyrie Eleison. It’s a phrase that has inspired endless amounts of music and you can have your pick of style. Something contemplative to inspire prayer, or something that calls out the need loudly. However you need to ask for that mercy, it will be there.


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