There is a criticism applied particularly to the Book of Common Prayer but also to a lesser extent to Common Worship: that the liturgy leaves us perpetually grovelling – making worms of us, so to speak, and never quite lifting us up to our place as redeemed children of God. Even in the Gloria, it is bemoaned, that great song of the Church, we are still asking God to have mercy on us.
But I am a worm, and no man;
scorned by men, and despised by the people. (RSV Ps 22.6)
This is never bothered me, terribly much – I am by nature and Augustinian, with a very bleak view of human nature to start with – but lately I have had my understanding of the cry, “kyrie eleison,” radically transformed.
The source of this transformation was our erstwhile Archbishop, Rowan, in a book I recommend: Ponder These Things. In this book I discovered that the various icons of the Virgin Mary sit within various strands of tradition. One of these traditions portrays Jesus, not in the usual dignified posture that befits the Son of God, but clutching at his mother as any toddler might. This tradition paints mother and son cheek to cheek, with the infant Christ child almost scrambling to be as close to his mother as physically possible.
Rowan Williams’ reflections on this icon are worth reading, but the discovery that meant I have not worshipped the same since, is the discovery of the name of this particular tradition: the Eleousa. This is generally translated, ‘loving kindness’, but it is the same root that in our worship is translated ‘mercy’, as in ‘kyrie eleison’.
Now, when I ask God to have mercy on me, the image in my head is no longer about me, about my worthiness or lack of it, but it is of Christ drawing me in, holding me close, bringing me back to himself.
As Lord Rowan points out in his book – and as anyone who’s held a toddler already knows – this is not always a comfortable experience, but it is one worth repeating, worth weaving through our liturgy, and through our prayer life – kyrie eleison: Lord have mercy on me, hold on to me and do not let me stray, remind me of your love for me, invade my space and do not let me forget you.
This then further amplifies what I was once taught about the threefold kyrie –
– that it is an invocation of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. We are pulled into the embrace of the Trinity.
“Have mercy upon us,
have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;
for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake” (BCP confession) and
“Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
have mercy upon us.
For thou only art holy;
thou only art the Lord;
thou only, O Christ,
with the Holy Ghost,
art most high
in the glory of God the Father.” (BCP Gloria)
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children. NSRV Ps 90.16
Not only one of the oldest prayers in Christian tradition, the kyrie eleison is one of the most radical, is almost all we need to say. It is not the grovelling cry of a worm, but the sigh of a lover, the call of the lost mountaineer, the mute lifted hands of the child:
Here I am, Lord, have mercy on me.
Ikons: Theotokos of Vladimir, Russia, 1130 & Our Lady Tolga, Russia, late thirteenth century.
For more on the Eleousa see https://thebippityboppitybeautifulblog.wordpress.com/tag/virgin-eleousa/