Technically, we say that the Mass begins with the “Penitential Rite.” But we might do better to say we begin with the profession of mercy. We begin the Mass by professing our need for God – and his unbounded generosity.
In the sacrament of Confession, we dig into God’s mercy by thinking specifically about our sins. This is an essential complement to the Mass. And yet in the Mass we don’t take too much time to think about our sin. In the Mass, we are focused on God’s mercy.
This is the right way to start. In the readings, we continue to meditate on God’s generosity – the myriad ways of his generosity through all the pages of the Bible. (One way to listen to those readings: now and then silently pray, “O Lord, mercy.”) Always his mercy on our need.
In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we give thanks and receive the ultimate gift. Mercy, mercy, mercy.
And so we begin, we set the stage for the whole Mass that will follow, by calling for mercy, celebrating mercy.
The older part of this celebration of mercy is the Kyrie. This is the original “litany,” once sung in processions on the way to Mass: have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.
I don’t think it’s helpful to criticize the liturgy; we should live it and love it, as we love the Church that gives it to us. But if there were one tiny thing I could change about the liturgical reform, it would be to restore the ninefold Kyrie. Now the priest says, “Lord have mercy,” we repeat; he says, “Christ have mercy, we repeat; etc. But it used to be just a little more complicated, with each one said three times instead of two. One of the ways it was celebrated was to go back and forth in sort of an odd way: after the priest says the third “Lord have mercy,” the people say the first “Christ have mercy,” etc.
Well, it’s an insignificant little detail – but the point is, the Kyrie is a time to dig into these words, to spend a little extra time on them, to luxuriate in the word mercy.
I use the word mercy when I teach my classes about Gregorian chant. The only point of chant, really, is to spend a little more time on the words. Mercy is the best example: apart from singing, there’s no way to enjoy that word as long as we ought to enjoy it. Gregorian chant is not designed to take forever – but it is designed to spend just a few more moments enjoying that word: Lord, have mercy.
Until the translations of the 1970s, Kyrie eleison was one of the few vestiges of the Greek liturgy. Even in Latin, you sing these words in Greek. Why? To remember that it is one of our oldest, most beloved prayers, our original inheritance. Before there was any Latin tradition at all, there was Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.
The Confiteor is a preparation for the Kyrie. Before we sing the simple, spectacular hymn of God’s mercy, we confess our need. The first thing to know in discovering the Confiteor is that its introspection is not the point. We are not at Mass to say mea culpa, but to say Kyrie eleison. But mea culpa helps us enter into Kyrie eleison.
The greatest glory of the Confiteor is its actual petition. After saying mea culpa, we do not say, “I ask you to accept me anyway.” We say, “I ask you to pray for me.”
Here is a simple, magnificent expression of the true nature of mercy. Mercy does not leave us alone. Mercy does not leave us as we were. Mercy comes to our aid. “I am a sinner, my brother and sisters! Help me! May God help me!” With that little insight, we can launch more profoundly into the simple hymn of mercy that follows.
Lord, have mercy! Lord, help me!
How could you practice greater devotion to the Kyrie?