No, this is NOT a misspelling of a grunge-band’s name, nor is this one of the currently trendy new names for babies. Instead, you’re looking at a Greek word that forms one part of the liturgical formula, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison. The simplest translation: Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. Today I want to riff on the eleison idea—having mercy. The concept, attitude and practice.
Some background. Kyrie eleison goes back to ancient Rome, to those times when the emperor or other potentate would ride through the streets to be among the people. And among those people were very poor individuals whose begging for mercy (eleison) would have confronted the ears and eyes of the Kyrie, the ruler. Depending on his/her mood or inclination, that very rich person might have tossed a few coins in the direction of the desperate beggars. Implied in the phrase was an acclamation of the caesar’s generosity, a tangible sign of mercy. It was an easy stretch for the early Christians to name the Christ as the real ruler, and to include this now-repurposed phrase into regular worship. (That’s probably why, centuries later, we still include this most-basic reminder in our present-day liturgies.)
Fast forward to here-and-now.
The eleison idea doesn’t end with a Sunday’s liturgy. Sure, it’s a good thing to know where mercy ultimately comes from, but mercy does its best work when it spreads into my core attitudes and life—when mercy-receiving and mercy-granting become an essential part of my approach to others, to difficulties, to troubling situations.
Asking for and granting mercy are gut-level reactions to the human condition, starting with my own: I really need mercy a lot more than I sometimes admit. But I also need to fulfill God’s will for the world by being a mercy-bringer, a mercy-giver, a merciful person.
Which gets me to thinking: What if, on a Sunday morning, I silently slipped other names or roles into my eleison song? Places and people where I’d like to get some mercy. (So my interior singing could be something like “Melanie, eleison” or “Senator, eleison”.) And remembering that mercy-received turns into mercy-given, I could also be listening for other people calling out their hopes for my mercy-granting. Those new lyrics would remind me about my calling to pass along mercy. (So I might also silently imagine “Bob, bring eleison to this unmerciful President” or “Bob, keep praying for mercy for undocumented persons.”)
What I’ve cobbled together here is an imperfect construct, I know. But I can’t get it out of my head that part of my work at this stage in life is to be a node of mercy, where God’s love is tangible and readily available.
Make sense to you? And where could I add your name to my eleison songs….?