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Introductory Rites: The Kyrie Eleison
Immediately after the Penitential Act, we acclaim the Lord and implore his mercy in words that are common to the liturgy celebrated in the West and in the East. Even in the Latin typical edition of the Roman Missal the words Kyrie Eleison and Christe Eleison (“Lord, have mercy” and “Christ, have mercy”) are preserved in the original Greek.
Addressing the Lord with Acclaim
In Eastern liturgies, each invocation is addressed to Christ, but in the West, since there are three invocations, each can also be addressed to one of the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. Both Kyrie (“Lord”) and Christe (“Christ”—which means Anointed One) are an acclamation of God, followed by a petition for his mercy (eleison—“have mercy”).
Have you ever received a special favor from Our Lord and thanked each Person of the Trinity, one by one? Since God is one, the whole Trinity is involved in each divine action, so Father, Son, and Holy Spirit deserve recognition.
These invocations also leave room for just speaking with Christ as well, and some of the “tropes” (see below) show all three to be addressed to the Son. We know that addressing the Son with acclaim gives honor to Father and Holy Spirit as well. There’s no competition in the Most Holy Trinity, except trying to abound in charity.
Appealing for the Lord’s Mercy
Since it is a petition for mercy, the Kyrie is often incorporated into the Penitential Act. The current Roman Missal has an appendix of suggested Penitential Acts that include the Kyrie. Entire books of them remain from the Middle Ages. Even apart from including it in the Penitential Act, there is a long liturgical traditional of interspersing “tropes” between each one: an interpolation of words or music into the plain chant. These tropes often reinforce why the Lord should heed those who are invoking him and asking for his mercy. It not only reminds him, as if he needed reminding; it reminds us why we invoke him with confidence.
Why repeat and embellish these invocations? At one point of liturgical history, there were long litanies interspersed with Kyrie Eleison as the response, a tradition that continues in Eastern liturgies.
Sometimes it is salutary to “work ourselves up” about something: something is not repetitive if repeating it serves a purpose. Just as in the Penitential Act, we foster our penitence through acknowledging our fault three times, the celebrant for each Kyrie starts off and then the faithful second his words in order to foster fervor. Our Lord listens to invocations as short as a “tweet,” but how much more he appreciates a conversation and not just a few words with little to no heart. The Kyrie is a way to continue your conversation with him during Mass.