The words of a popular Chris Tomlin song goes like this…
For Your Name is great And Your heart is grace Kyrie Eleison Over all You reign You alone can save Kyrie Eleison Lord have mercy Christ have mercy on us now
But what does the phrase ‘Kyrie Eleison’ really mean? And why do churches (like which I am part of) prefer to use (multiple times during Divine Liturgy) this Greek phrase, rather than its English translation – ‘God have mercy’?
The reason is similar to why we still use Hebrew words like Hosanna, Alleluia, Sabbath and Amen. Simply because it’s often difficult to capture the essence of the words ‘Kyrie Eleison’ fully in English or (maybe) another language.
The word ‘eleison’ has the same root with the similar sounding Greek word for olive oil ‘elaio’ – which in the New Testament is seen as a healing agent [Refer to the parable of the Good Samaritan in St. Luke 10:34].
Similarly we see the same word used in St. James 5:14 [which refers to using oil (elaios) to pray for the sick].
Thus elaios (oil), as with eleos (mercy), is synonymous with soothing, comforting and taking away pain.
The Hebrew word translated into Greek as ‘eleos’ (mercy) is “hesed” which denotes Gods persistent and unconditional tenderness, steadfast love, lovingkindness and compassion.
Putting it all together, when we say ‘Kyrie Eleison’ we are saying ‘Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love’ [From the book Orthodox Worship].
The book “Orthodox Worship” continues the description by saying …
Thus mercy does not refer so much to justice or acquittal -a very Western interpretation, but to the infinite loving-kindness of God, and his compassion for his suffering children! It is in this sense that we pray ‘Lord, have mercy,’ with great frequency throughout the Divine Liturgy.
The Canaanite woman cried out – ‘Kyrie Eleison’
The father of the son troubled with demons cried out – ‘Kyrie Eleison’
The two unnamed blind men called out to Jesus saying – ‘Kyrie Eleison’
The publican cried and said – ‘Kyrie Eleison’
And the blind Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus – ‘Kyrie Eleison’
Let us also cry out and say KYRIE ELEISON