Our liturgy is so familiar, so well established, that we can forget to seek out the scriptural source for the texts. With the recent English translation of the Latin Rite a few years ago, some of us had a minor epiphany when we discovered “Lord, I am not worthy…” were the words of faith uttered by the centurion in Matthew 8. These words form a minor penitential act of sorts, but understood in the context of Scripture they are also a confession of faith in what one is soon to receive.
The Kyrie “Lord, Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy, Lord Have Mercy” is a difficult text to attribute to any particular Biblical source, because it appears so many times. Psalm 41 speaks to our familiar Liturgical understanding: “Have mercy on me, Lord; heal my soul, for I have sinned against you.” We appropriately sing the Kyrie after confessing our sins.
This Advent, I would like to suggest another possible source for the Kyrie: Matthew 20. The story is simple: Two blind men by the roadside in Jericho call out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” Jesus stops and asks “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they received their sight and followed him.
The blind men lacked sight not through any fault of their own; the experience of darkness, confusion, and blindness was for them a fact of human condition. However, they knew that Jesus could help. The light of Christ is an inexhaustible solution for the ignorance and stubbornness of our humanity, whether that ignorance and stubbornness is culpable or not. In fact, “every good thing… is from above, coming down from [God] the Father of lights” (James 1).
Praying for solutions, for understanding, for help, for strength, and for wisdom is asking for God’s Mercy, too, not just asking for forgiveness. We do not necessarily have to be guilty to ask for mercy. More often than not, mercy is demonstrated in ways other than forgiveness: the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, for example. In other words, the Kyrie -- a cry for mercy -- can be penitential, however it can also be a prayer that God help us with daily challenges and work, with complex political situations, with broken relationships and lost hopes.
Mercy in the Scholastic tradition is akin to justice, because it is "ad alterum" meaning it necessarily involves two persons. One party sees some sort of misery in another, and generously offers a solution to that misery of their own means. Asking God for mercy establishes this sort of relationship. This Advent, in the Year of Mercy, let us cry out “Lord, Have Mercy,” whether asking for forgiveness or asking for wisdom and illumination for the needs of our families, our Church, and our world. Maybe then we will have special reason to sing the Gloria, when Christ the Light comes at Christmas.
“And I tell you, ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11).