Mar 10, 2011

Kyrie, eleison, eleison


We observed Ash Wednesday with a service of evening prayer centered around a version of the Great Litany and the imposition of ashes. We had about 15 people in attendance.

"Litany" with a small "l" means "a liturgical prayer consisting of a series of petitions recited by a leader alternating with fixed responses by the congregation." Litanies are among the oldest forms of Christian prayer. As it is sometimes said that the first creed of the church was "Jesus is Lord", in contrast to "Caesar is Lord" (with the word, kyrios, implying lordship in a divine sense), the earliest litanies incorporated "Kyrie eleison" ("Lord have mercy") as the fixed responses.

"Kyrie eleison" is believed to have originally been a supplication to Caesar. This type of litany survives to this day in forms like this:

P: In peace, let us pray to the Lord.
C: Lord, have mercy.

P: For the peace from above and for our salvation let us pray to the Lord.
C: Lord, have mercy.

P: For the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the church of God, and for the unity of all let us pray to the Lord.
C: Lord, have mercy.

P: For this holy hourse and for all who offer here their worship and praise let us pray to the Lord.
C: Lord, have mercy.

P: Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord.
C: Amen.

However, in the order of the Divine Service that we follow on Sunday mornings here in Venezuela, as well as other places, "the Kyrie" is "extracted" from the prayers and follows the Introit, sandwiched between the Gloria Patri and the Gloria in Excelsis:

Lord have mercy upon us
Christ have mercy upon us.
Lord have mercy upon

The Great Litany, the super-deluxe model, first appeared around the sixth century A.D. and in western Christendom came to be known as "the Litany of the Saints" and in Greek Orthodox Christianity as "the Litany of Peace." At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther revised "the Litany of the Saints", mainly by removing pleas to the Virgin Mary and the saints, and intercessory prayers for the dead and for the Pope. Luther published this litany in both Latin and German, and it is this form of the Great Litany that is used in Lutheran churches today. In addition, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer essentially translated Luther's version of the litany into English and included it in the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer, so Lutheran and Anglican versions of the litany are very similar.

The Great Litany is essentially a penitential prayer, asking God for forgiveness of sins and remembering Christ's suffering and death on the cross, as well as imploring His protection and blessing in all circumstances of earthly life. So it is appropriate to use the litany during an Ash Wednesday evening service.

Maybe next year we will try singing it.
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