On Greek phrases in Latin masses

Little known fact: if you get involved in classical choral music, you will, at some point, sing somebody’s version of the Catholic Mass.

It’s one of those things composers just sort of do. The Catholic Mass (and the Anglican Mass, and the Lutheran Mass) is a series of texts – prayers, hymns, Scripture – that have collected over the centuries into a more-or-less standardized form. Composers seem to take this as a challenge, coming up with new ways to do it. I’ve never celebrated an actual Mass, but I’ve sung a bunch of ’em. As a result, I’ve gotten to know some really beautiful texts: there’s the “Sanctus”, based on Isaiah 6:3 and Matthew 21:9, which is a beautiful doxology; there’s the dramatic “Sequence” (the version in Mozart’s Requiem Mass is all fire and thunder), and one time I sang a Mass that still had the “Credo” in it, which is the entire Nicene Creed.  In Latin.

And then there’s the “Kyrie”.  It goes like this:

Kyrie eleison
Christe eleison
Kyrie eleison

The translation is, “Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.”  And that’s it. Most of the Mass is elaborate and beautiful poems and the “Kyrie” has six words. Three of which are repeats. So what’s the point?

The first “Kyrie” I ever sang was from Haydn’s “Nelson Mass”. We didn’t sing the rest of it, just that part.  I remember my director, a Lutheran, telling us teenagers how a lot of people sing the “Kyrie” without much feeling. “Lord have mercy, whatever.”  This was missing the point, she told us. We ought to crying out, in pain and anguish. Which is how Haydn interpreted it: his version is a loud, desperate, sorrowful piece, pleading to God out of darkness and despair.  Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! I’m a sinner, I’m a wretch, I’m lost and hurting and have nothing left. Lord, have mercy! Save me! Lift me up! Please!

Now I’m an Evangelical, and was raised in the Evangelical tradition. So the Mass is pretty new to me. At first, I didn’t know how something sad and dark could fit into a church service. There are introspective worship choruses out there, and some of the old hymns speak to pain, but one of the things we Evangelicals forget is that anguish and hurt and tragedy belong in the life of a Christian. I don’t mean in a “hellfire and damnation” way. I mean in a “in this world you will have trouble” way.

One of the foundations of my faith is that this world is broken. Everything that’s good exists either because of the sheer stubbornness of God’s original design (everything was intended to be good and beautiful and pleasurable and it’s amazing how much of it continues to be so, given all that’s wrong) or the specific graces and blessings God gives us. Mind you, each of us is loved by God. He desires the best for us. As a Christian, I believe that someday I’m going to learn what that means, and the word “suffering” will be strictly past-tense.  On the other hand, this life is skewed downward. We’re inclined to evil. The world is inclined to pain. Every joy on this earth is going to have the element of sorrow in it.

Lord, have mercy.

Another foundation of my faith is that once you confess that the Son of God is your lord, hell is no longer an option. It’s easy to think that once that’s taken care of, everything will be fine.  Maybe we get all “don’t be silly!” and acknowledge that, yes, stuff is still going to go wrong, we’ll still get sick or lose a job or wreck a car and we’re all going to die someday. We might even admit that we’re going to “stumble”, which sounds all nice and accidental. But come on, we know the truth: we’re going to rebel. Some ways down the line, for whatever reason, something’s going to be dangled in front of us that we can’t resist, and every last one of us will, at some point, do something very, very stupid. On purpose. Eagerly. And some of us will go on doing it for a long time.

Christ, have mercy.

Nevermind eternal damnation. We’re broken, and our world is broken. No matter what the reason, we’re going to suffer. Truth is, this universe is perfectly capable of becoming its own hell.

Lord, have mercy.

None of us deserve a perfect life, anymore than we deserve heaven, and we feel it when we’re at our lowest.  It’s a good thing, then, that “deserving” isn’t how the game is played.  We know it wouldn’t be grace or mercy if we deserved it, and in the same way, suffering isn’t the same as punishment. Suffering doesn’t necessarily mean God is angry or I’ve done something wrong.  Sometimes we suffer because that’s how the world works.

As long as we’re here, we’re going to have times when we get buried under the consequences of our species’ collective pride. At those moments, when we’re weak, in pain, drowning in sorrow, and completely lost, whether it’s our fault, or someone else’s fault, or Adam’s fault, there’s got to be something we can pray. Some days the pain is so great that for all our lofty ideals, there’s only one thing we’re capable of praying.

Kyrie eleison.

We sweep the hard times under the rug.  We shouldn’t.  God is in those, too, after all.  And there are times we get embarrassed because we feel like asking for mercy over and over again means something’s wrong with us. Thing is, something is wrong with us, and will continue to be wrong with us until we die. That’s the state we live in. Fortunately for us, God’s mercy is as endless as his grace. We will always need it, and thus we shouldn’t be afraid to keep on asking.

And thus the “Kyrie” should be sung to beautiful music, with as much passion as a “Hallelujah”.  Our future is secure, but our present is a mess, and God is a God of the here and now as much as he is the God of heaven.  Thank God we have words to say no matter where that mess has taken us.  If worship is saying that God is God and we are us, then it is nothing but worship when we say, “Lord, have mercy.”

(In case you’re wondering, “kyrie” is pronounced “KIH-ree-eh”, “Christe” is pronounced “KREE-steh”, and “eleison” is pronounced “eh-LEH-ih-sohn.”)