Kyrie Eleison | Lord, have mercy upon us.

Having studied in a Cambridge College, the words of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, especially at Choral Evensong, remained central to our liturgical diet. One criticism I often heard applied to the BCP (and, to a lesser extent, to Common Worship services) was that the liturgy leaves us perpetually grovelling – making worms of us and never really lifting us up to our place as beloved, redeemed children of God. Even in the Gloria, the joyful song of the Church, we ask God to have mercy on us.

…And there is no health in us:
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders;
Spare thou them, O God,
which confess their faults,
Restore thou them that are penitent,
According to thy promises… (extract BCP Confession)

Personally, this has never caused me any sleepless nights – I am, as you may have realised from my last couple of blog posts, an Augustinian by nature and have a reasonably bleak view of human nature. However, having read a chapter of Bishop Rowan Williams’s excellent book on Marian Icons, Ponder These Things, my understanding of the cry ‘kyrie eleison’ (Lord have mercy) has been completely transformed.

In Ponder These Things, Rowan Williams presents a number of beautiful meditations on icons of Our Lady, which leads the reader deep into the various traditions of icons of the Blessed Virgin and, through these icons, calls us to ponder the great themes of Christian theology and spirituality. It’s a truly remarkable little book. One of these icon traditions which has been very significant personally, portrays the Lord, not in the usual dignified posture that befits the Son of God, but clutching at his mother as any toddler might. This tradition of icon has mother and son cheek to cheek, with the infant Christ scrambling to be as close to his mother as is physically possible.

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Our Lady of Vladimir

The revelation for me in Rowan’s book was the discovery of the Eastern name for this tradition. While, in the West, this style of icon is usually known as ‘the `Virgin of Tenderness’, the Eastern Church calls this icon the Eleousa (Ἐλεούσα). Usually, this is translated ‘loving kindness’ (hence, tenderness in the West) but it has the same root as the word that in our worship is translated ‘mercy’ (ελέησον, eleison).

Since reading Ponder These Things, whenever I ask God to have mercy on me, I no longer think exclusively about me and my unworthiness – like a defendant pleading mercy at the feet of the judge – but of Christ, drawing me in, holding me close, drawing me back to himself. As Bishop Rowan highlights in his reflections, and as anyone who has ever held a toddler knows, this is not always a comfortable experience but it is an important one, one worth weaving in to our liturgy and our prayer life.

With this insight, when we pray Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy upon me, we are saying to Christ – ‘Lord, hold on to me and do not let me stray from you, remind me of your love, invade my space, even that locked room which I try to hide from you, and never forget me.’

This teaching further amplifies the threefold Kyrie which we say at the Eucharist –

Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

This is, fundamentally, an invocation of the Trinity: asking for mercy from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, in saying this prayer, we are not grovelling at God’s feet – but praying that we may be swept up into the life of the eternal Trinity: into the life of the God who longs to be near to us.

With this observation and the image of Mary the Eleousa, the kyrie eleison becomes not only one of the oldest prayers in the Christian tradition but also one of its most radical – in truth, this prayer says almost all we need to say. Certainly, the Orthodox monks on Mount Athos who spend vast tracts of time saying the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us’, wold agree that this simple prayer is a central part of the Christian life. Yet, ‘Lord have mercy’ is not the grovelling cry of a worthless worm, but the sigh of a lover, the call of the lost sheep, the mute lifted hands of the child who longs to be closer to his mother:

Lord, have mercy upon us.

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This passionate and intimate closeness, cheek to cheek, is the inspiration behind the logo for the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

 

Amazing love!

Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!


At Mass in St. Bene’t’s, Cambridge this morning, we sung Charles Wesley’s extraordinary hymn, And can it be. The words of this hymn are emotive and beautiful, expressing the extravagant and reckless love of God whose mercy is inexpressible and love for us is beyond reason or knowledge. It reminded me of one of the greatest sermons I have ever witnessed – preached by Archbishop Barry of Wales when he visited Corpus. He told us this story from Flannery O’Connor’s story, ‘The River’.

FlanneryOConnorCompleteStoriesThe story is about a little boy called Bevel whose parents are too busy to have any time for him, she he’s hunted off to the care of a kind country woman. One day, when she’s out with Bevel by the river, they come across a preacher baptising people in its waters. Then, without warning, the preacher picks Bevel up, swings him under the water and baptises him. Then, after he is baptised, the preacher lifts him up in the air and, looking him straight in the eye says to him, ‘You count. You count’.

Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!

Now, of course, I wouldn’t advocate that anyone should be baptised in quite that way but the preacher’s actions and words reveal something of that amazing and generous love, which appears so reckless in contrast to our human attempts to limit God’s love and welcome. I believe the Church of God exists above all else to proclaim to all who will hear – ‘you count, you count.’ We have to be a people who believe and proclaim that God takes great delight in all people because we are made in his image and bear the mark of his very nature whoever we are. However, we are only able to proclaim this if we realise that we ourselves are loved by God. You can only proclaim a message of love if you have first hand knowledge of what it means to be loved.

Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!

Every single person in the Church has been called by name and been incorporated into the Body of Christ. You are accepted in love and we are asked to respond with love. We matter to God, and because of that are able, in turn, to tell others that they matter to us and to God. This is a very simple and profound message but it is amazing how many people find it hard to believe that God actually loves them without reserve. Many people think of God as angry or vengeful – just look at the kind of God proclaimed by ISIS – while others thing of a God whose love has to be earned. Often this is because they think of themselves as unlovable or worst still, the Church has conveyed to them the impression that they are unlovable and that God has found them wanting. There’s no need to list the people to whom this applies.

In the Gospel reading today, we hear of Christ’s generous love to a woman considered so far outside the religious establishment of its day. This message of shameless, generous love was not accepted by the establishment of the day – they drove this Love to death on the Cross. This was a love which endured death rather than conform to social expectation. We the followers of Jesus are meant to be living symbols – walking sacraments of the truth of the Gospel that our God is a God of love. Jesus’ disciples are people to whom God has given a resounding yes in love – however extraordinary and impossible that might seem – and so, as people accepted by God in this way, we need to reflect that love, which means saying yes to God’s world and to everyone within it, especially those whom the rest of the world finds so unlovable: the stranger, the refugee, the difficult and the poor.

This will demand sacrifice, we can’t say how much and it will require us to constantly set aside our tidy boundaries and ideas of respectability and to reach out into the depths of the world – knowing that God says to every person ‘you count. You count.’ This is a simple message, perhaps it doesn’t even need a blog post to get it across – but there is much here to meditate on. Two hymns can provide helpful food for thought: And can it be and the beautiful There’s a wideness in God’s mercy – words I will be spending time with for the rest of the day (texts below)

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There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.

There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Saviour;
there is healing in his blood.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than in heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such kind judgment given.

There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.


And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.