Wednesday, January 10, 2007


“Kyrie Eleison”—A Prayer for When We Don’t Know How to Pray?
President Bush just completed his speech from the library of the White House, outlining his current plan for a final go at victory/salvage in Iraq. By now the blogosphere is churning with positions on the Presidents proposal. Viva democracy in these United States. But what are we Christians to do? Shall we join in partisan debate, give thumbs up or down, and further enflame the polarization of America? Undoubtedly, many of us will do so, right, left and middle.

However, on deeper reflection, I wonder if as Christian communities of prayer, we should at least pray; indeed, is not prayer the distinctive thing we are called to do. But how do Christians pray in such times without rehearsing our own political views, telling God (and coincidentally, others with whom we pray) where we are as another hellish moment comes upon the world? Lord have mercy on us when we engage in extemporaneous prayer in such times: we will likely use way too many words and expose how little charity, grace and wisdom there is in our hearts, wherever we stand on the Iraq situation.

An alternative could be silence before firing off our opinions; a worthy prelude to any time of prayer. Or, in some traditions we could consider praying in tongues, trusting the Spirit to make good our prayer as we repent and rest from mental pugilism.

And, we could join the saints in praying or singing the ancient (dated at least as early as the 4th century in the East and the 5th in the West) Christian Greek prayer, Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy). It offers the church words with sufficient simplicity and depth to take us with our anguished world into the mercy of God. At its simplest, it is Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy. A latter elaboration (according to Gregory the Great in 590) is:

Kyrie eleison. Lord (Sovereign)have mercy.
Christe eleison. Christ have mercy.
Kyrie eleison. Lord(Sovereign) have mercy.

This prayer is so much a part of the liturgical inheritance of the church that it has been said in many ways, often in the vernacular, and sung with many settings.

Lucien Deiss (in Vision of Liturgy and Music for a New Century—The Liturgical Press, 1996) reminds us of this prayer’s biblical significance. Kurios=Lord/LORD in the OT was the stand in for the ineffable name of God, Yahweh. In the NT, kurios is evocative of the risen Christ and is the name above every name at which every knee will bow (Phil. 2:9-11). Christe is vocative—address—of the Christ, the Messiah. Eleison is the imperative form of eleein, to have mercy or pity. So, in the presence of God we implore, plead for, cry out for deliverance, salvation, wholeness and mercy. Like Bartimaeus (Mark 10:47-48; Matt. 20:31; Luke 18:39) or the dauntless Canaanite woman (Matt. 15: 22) kyrie eleison allows us an unrestrained ritual cry to God for a situation with which we don’t know how to cope. As Deiss puts it, “[t]he Kyrie eleison of the Gospels draws all the misery of humanity to itself, a humanity in search of Christ’s mercy.” (p. 164-165) There is also an eschatological dimension to this prayer which in one form or another we will breathe and sing until there will be no more chaos and war, no more night, no more crying, no more death (Rev. 21:1-4). Indeed, in this vein it could be seen as a militant anticipation, even a confrontation with the powers (Jaques Ellul).

This prayer is a cry of penitence, hope, dependence—exactly where God’s people always stand i and with world. It gives us a vehicle for saying what we have no other words to express. In a sense Kyrie eleison is a form of liturgical groaning—a deep, almost in articulate cry for mercy (Rom. 8:26-28) that the Spirit takes up in pleading to God. Its antiquity and ecumenical use connect those who pray it with all people in their cry for mercy.

Most of our hymnals and other collections of historic, ecumenical and contemporary song have eminently singable settings. The United Methodist Hymnal, which which I am most familiar has three (482 contemporary American, 483 Russian Orthodox liturgy, and 484 Taize Community). Any of these can be used by themselves or as a repeated response to biddings or segments of a litany.

Another, an extended kyrie found in The Faith We Sing (no. 2275, arranged by Ruth Elaine Schram) is based on Anton Dvoƙak’s movement II from Symphony No. 9 (The New World Symphony), familiar to many Americans as “Going Home.” Given its sustained flow and largo pace this setting allows feeling and emotion to well up and carry the assembly ever more deeply into the heart of Christ for the life of the world. I can imagine congregations singing supported by different instruments with each repetition while members of the congregation come to light candles placing them in a box of sand or a votive rack.

How shall we pray? How shall we cry out in this dark night? Kyrie eleison may be a good place to begin and return as the church’s cry for mercy.

As illustration I included a photo of Serb Orthodox Christians praying for missing and killed dear ones.