Missa – Eleison
The Catholic Church is often associated with the speaking of Latin. This is because Western Empire which was Europe spoke Latin, which was the language of the people; the common tongue. This being the case, the Roman Rite spoke the Mass in Latin up until about a half century ago. Latin is still used, and older liturgies like the Tridentine are still to be found, but in English speaking countries, English is most often used for the liturgy.
In the early church period, even within the Roman Empire, the world in which the church was born was still very much Greek. This is because the Roman Empire grew in the decline of the Macedonian Empire established by Alexander the Great. After Alexander the Empire broke apart but culture in the Mediterranean remained Hellenistic into the time of Christ.
The christian church was born in this culture, and as such its earliest writings, the Gospels, Paul’s letters, the Septuagint and its earliest liturgies were spoken in Greek. Byzantine Catholics still use Greek for their liturgy and for that matter the very word “liturgy” comes from the Greek language.
In the west the use of latin became more prevalent, and is still considered the language of the church. However Greek does occasionally make an appearance in our liturgy today. It can be used in the first part of what is understood as the “Ordinary” or Order of the Mass. These are parts of the mass which are constant, and are contrasted with the “Proper” which tend to focus on the special events in the year. The Order consists of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, and in some fashion these will be a part of every mass. (An example of the “Proper” would be prayers used to remember the Saint of a certain day, or certain hymns and prayers sung during the Introit. The Introit may sing about Christmas, or Easter but the Kyrie, in any language will still be the same.)
The Kyrie is a basic version of one of the most ancient prayers of the church; the Jesus Prayer:
Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord have mercy
or if spoken or sung in Greek:
In the mass it can be spoken, sung or chanted and for me it is always best when done in Greek. There is something beautiful about the prayer, it is simple and direct and comes from the story of the publican in the gospel. The prayer is trinitarian in its structure and variations keep this focus on the Trinity.
The Kyrie also takes a “next step” in the progression of the liturgy. The Penitential rite is about confession and repentance, and now in the Kyrie, we seek mercy. Like the publican, we see the Lord for who He is, but we also know what He has done and why we are participating in this ancient celebration. We ask for mercy because Christ has forgiven us. This is our reminder of sorts. It reminds us that for all the wrong this world has dealt us, and however much of that wrong we had a part in or caused for others; through mortal or venial sin; by sins of omission or commission; and the temporal effects of those sins which continue to reap a harvest; that the Most High God entered humanity and suffered the weight of this world to save us all.