Forty Days of the Mercy of Jesus

A thought for Lent, from the liturgy.

I am generally a great defender of the liturgical reforms after Vatican II: because I think liturgy depends on our relationship to authority (it is inherently anti-liturgical to criticize the liturgy that the pope and the bishops give us), because I think the changes are for the most part really good (mostly simplification to focus on essentials and increase of Scripture), and because I think claims about the difference between the liturgies manifest that people don’t know what they’re talking about (the two forms aren’t as different as people claim, beyond the fact that there are some non-essential prayers at the beginning, and then people stop paying attention).  So there.  (Want to debate?  I have a comment box . . . .)

I am not defending practice – both rites are done badly most of the time – but the new books I like.

That said, there are little details that bug me.  One of them was the Kyrie.  Before Vatican II it was sung in Greek (I think using some Greek is good and beautiful), three times each instead of two (I like the poetry of that), and without any interpolations, or “tropes.”  It’s the tropes I want to talk about.

There are a few options for how to do the Kyrie now, but most of them include adding lines like, “You are Son of God and Son of Mary, Lord, have mercy.”

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I don’t like additions.  To the contrary, one of the central principles of Vatican II’s constitution that defined the liturgical reform was:

“The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 34).

Later they apply it to the Mass in particular:

“For this purpose the rites are to be simplified, due care being taken to preserve their substance; elements which, with the passage of time, came to be duplicated, or were added with but little advantage, are now to be discarded” (ibid., 50).

Why, in the midst of this simplification to the essentials, are we cluttering up the Kyrie?  And why, especially, are we adding lines that are not directly related to the prayer at hand?  We are crying out to the divine mercy.  I love to say Jesus is Son of Mary – I love the rosary! – but that’s not the point here.  Keep it simple.

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But there’s one more part of my annoyance, and here we get to the crux.  The medievals too often added to the Kyrie, often long poems.  One of the main points of those poems was to develop a Trinitarian interpretation of the Kyrie.  The first “Lord have mercy” goes with the Father.  “Christ have mercy” goes with the Son.  The last “Lord have mercy” is the Holy Spirit.

But the Vatican II Mass speaks of Jesus at every turn: Son of God and Son of Mary, Lord have mercy.  We’re not talking about Jesus now – I thought.  We’re talking about the Father.  What are you doing!

But then I did some research.  It turns out that the Kyrie arises from an old procession where it was all about Jesus.  In fact, the Greek Kyrie is connected to that most ancient of Greek Christian prayers, the Jesus Prayer, where one repeats, over and over again, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  Which is both Christ have mercy and Lord have mercy.  Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison is just another way of digging into the repetition: Jesus, mercy!  Jesus, mercy!  Jesus, mercy!

It turns out, as so often happens, the Magisterium is smarter than I am, and my stubbornness, my assumption that they were screwing things up, is actually yet another call to focus.

Of course mercy is a Trinitarian theme.  But we begin the Mass by looking toward Jesus, the Divine Mercy incarnate.  Keep it simple.  The tropes say things like “Son of God and Son of Mary” precisely to put flesh on the words, “Lord have mercy.”  It’s not a vague phrase in another language.  It’s not even a high Trinitarian formula.  It’s the Jesus Prayer: Jesus – mercy; Jesus – mercy; Jesus – mercy.  It’s only through Jesus that we have access to mercy and to the Father and the Holy Spirit.

This Lent, I wish you forty days of Jesus and mercy.

eric.m.johnston

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