What does Kyrie mean? Why do we sing it in every service?
In our worship, we sing “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.” In the Latin, this is “Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison.” Kyrie (kí-ree-eh) is simply the Latin title, “Lord.” It has long been called by its first word; we simply retain the practice in our hymnals.
It is in the Kyrie that we request of God His most gracious work. Having called upon His name and confessed our sins, we ask Him to be merciful toward us. This is what is called His “proper work”, as opposed to His “alien work” of punishing sin. Our cries for mercy reflect the pleas of those who cried out to Jesus like the blind man in Luke 18, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This mercy is the undeserved grace He shows us as He forgives our sins and does not hold them against us.
As we ask the Lord for mercy, it is but a subtle reminder that we do not come on Sunday mornings to do something great for God. Without His mercy, we are unable to do anything good for Him. We come to church that we might ask for and receive His mercy; only through His mercy do we know the comfort of the Gospel, the forgiveness of our sins, knowing we can do nothing in return deserving of that wonderful gift.
In the Kyrie, we also set the tone for the rest of the service. What is it that we need from God? It is right here: mercy. We do not come for more money or power. We do not come to make our problems go away. We do not come to show how wonderful we are. We do not come to be entertained. We come to receive what God has to give us. We come for mercy. And as we sing the Kyrie, we demonstrate that we know where to find it. It comes to us as we gather where He has promised to be present. His mercy comes to us through His Holy Word. His mercy comes to us through His Sacraments. Here and now, He answers our prayers as we cry out, “Lord, have mercy.”
It is sometimes difficult for us to admit that we cannot do everything by ourselves. Many think that we come to church each week to show God how much we love Him. If this were the only reason we came, our inattentiveness, our sometimes grudging attitudes, our minor discomforts and frustrations would negate any good we demonstrate by coming. It is hard for us to humble ourselves and ask for God’s mercy. It is a challenge to admit that we need it. Most of the time, we sing this part of the service without ever thinking about it. The words are easy, the text is short. We move on to the more upbeat parts of the service. But it is appropriate to adopt a somber attitude here. This is where we approach the Creator of the universe with our heads bowed in humility asking for something we do not deserve. “Lord, have mercy!” And He gives it to us!