If one were to read through the Bible, one would find the phrase “have mercy on” quite frequently, especially in the Psalms and Gospels. Possibly the most recognizable verse is from Psalm 51, the psalm in which David repents of his sins of adultery and murder. David says,
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions.
~ Psalm 51:1 ~
Many people ask for mercy from Christ in the New Testament, including blind men (Matt. 9:27, 20:30-31, Mar. 10:47-48, Luk. 18:38-39), the Canaanite woman whose daughter was demon possessed (Matt. 15:22), and a father for his demon possessed son (Matt. 17:15). There is also a tax collector in a parable that asks God for mercy on him, a sinner (Luk. 18:13). However, the phrase Ἐλέησόν κύριε, or Kyrie, eleison – Lord, have mercy – only appears in a couple of verses (Matt. 15:22, 17:15, 20:30-31). And this the phrase we are looking for in the Greek.
This Greek phrase became part of the divine service from very early on and has continued to the present day. At the start of the Church, people as mostly spoke in Greek and so churches typically spoke their services and preached in Greek. Thus, it makes sense that they would say “Lord, have mercy” in Greek. The Kyrie, as it is called, is often said in song with an addition, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” This is often sung in either the language of the speaker or Greek, which is common in more traditional churches. In 1054, the Church split into what is now called Eastern Orthodox and Western or Roman Orthodox, typically called the Roman Catholic Church. The main differences between these “churches” was the language spoken (the schism was and is significant beyond this, but it is not crucial to this discussion).
And this is the odd thing. When the churches split, the Roman Catholic Church fully adopted Latin as the language of the liturgy. Now the gradual switch to Latin had begun at some point before, but the “Roman” in Roman Catholic meant Latin, and that was the language mass was spoken in. Despite this switch, and the fact that Greek was not the language of the people anymore, the liturgy kept the original Greek for the Kyrie. Why?
Going back to the New Testament, we find who asked the Lord for mercy using this phrase: Blind men and two parents of two demon possessed children. Who are these people? Were they noble, rich, of particular significance? No. They were beggars and desperate people. I use beggars intentionally, for what do beggars do? They ask for something without the means of repayment. In the same way, these people needed the mercy of the Lord and knew they had nothing to give in return. Beggars used to cry “Lord, have mercy” on the side of streets in order to get someone, anyone, to stop and offer them help (after all, who doesn’t want to be called a lord?). This is especially true for the woman and the blind men, though they seemed to have known Jesus was the Christ. But how does this apply to the divine service and Greek?
Like the beggars on the side of the road or desperate parents, the sinner has nothing to offer before God. This is why we ask our Lord for mercy. He is not just anyone, but our Lawgiver, our Judge, our King, and our Savior. Thus, we ask for mercy from Him in the service because we are indeed at His mercy. But why keep the original Greek in the liturgy? Because words have meaning, especially when it comes to context and language. Mercy in Greek is more than a gift of money. Mercy here is compassion, pity, divine grace, relief for the afflicted, averted judgement. Mercy and grace are gifts of God, and like David, the distraught parents, or those blind men, we ask God for His mercy not just at mass but in every day of our lives, for we need it and we can give nothing in return. So we beg, and thanks be to God that He is merciful!
So why should this matter to the linguist, scholar, or avid reader? This matters because context matters. While I am not expert in Greek, or Hebrew for that matter, I often do word studies in order to better understand the text I am reading, in this case the Bible. But the same is true for the Aeneid or Odyssey or Gilgamesh or a work by Shakespeare. Original languages add depth of meaning that does not always translate well into a new language. So while we can understand any of these works in our language of choice, take the time every now and then to see what the original said and see how it adds to the meaning of what you are reading.
Blessings to you and yours,