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The Kyrie

In many of our churches, the customary order of worship includes a section known as the Kyrie (pronounced KEER- ee-eh ). In The Lutheran Hymnal, it can be found on page 7 (also pages 17, 39, 44).

The Kyrie as used in the liturgy has a rather interesting history. It comes from a Greek clause ( Κύριε έλέησον “kyrie eleison” ) meaning “Lord, have mercy.” Before it was ever used in the church, the phrase had become a common expression of praise and acclamation as well as a way to ask for help from one’s king or master. In the New Testament, it appears in verses such as Matthew 15:22 (Christian Standard Bible (CSB): “Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came and kept crying out, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely tormented by a demon.’” Also in Matthew 20:30 (CSB): “There were two blind men sitting by the road. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’”

It wasn’t until the fourth century A.D. that Christians began to use it in their litany prayers. A litany is a prayer which calls for a repeated response from the congregation (see The Lutheran Hymnal, pages 110-111). In the church, as the deacon prayed, the people responded, “Lord, have mercy.”

Over the centuries the Kyrie took on a penitential aspect, a prayer for forgiveness of sins. Perhaps when you pray it you even think first of the forgiveness of sins. But this was not the original usage of the phrase nor its original intent in worship services. As it is used in the New Testament and in early Christian litanies, it is a prayer asking God to have mercy on our bodies, supplying us with our earthly needs. Twentieth-century Lutheran hymnals made an effort to return the Kyrie to its original function. Notice how The Lutheran Hymnal places it after the confession and absolution so that we first approach God with our great spiritual need (the forgiveness of sins) and then with our request for Him to support our bodies and lives.

The three-fold Kyrie (with the addition of the lines “Christ, have mercy” and another “Lord, have mercy”) is a later liturgical development that dates, as near as we can tell, to sixth-century Rome during the time of Pope Gregory the Great, when the original text of the Kyrie was expanded. In our services, the three-fold Kyrie is generally chanted, spoken, or sung in an adapted hymn form. In the Christian church, composers have written countless musical settings of these words, and new settings are always being written.

When we pray the Kyrie, we can be reminded of the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Without God’s powerful hand working in and with our daily bread, none of it would be able to sustain our bodies—for “man does not live on bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3 CSB) Therefore, it is fitting and proper for us to turn to Him asking for this kind of help. Lord, have mercy in our sicknesses; Lord, have mercy when we are persecuted for our faith; Lord, have mercy that we are able to feed and clothe ourselves and our families, and so on.

God surely answers our Kyrie for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! He strengthens and preserves us bodily so that we can proclaim the praises of Him who died on the cross, rose again from death, forgave us our sins, and Who promises us eternal life.

David Schaller is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.