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Friday, November 22, 2013

Kyrie eleison - Son of David and King of the Jews

I think that if you ask 100 Catholics to translate the Greek phrase kyrie eleison into English, 99 or so
would say, "Lord, have mercy." And then, if you asked the same group to translate "Lord, have mercy" into English, you would get more diverse answers, but most of them would be variations on, "Lord, forgive us." This includes many members of the clergy and religious education teachers, who, when left to their own liturgical devices to compose a penitential rite for a prayer service or for Eucharist, will make one that goes something like this:
Lord Jesus, for all the things we've done that we shouldn't have done, Lord, have mercy
Christ Jesus, for all the things we haven't done we should have done, Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, for anything not covered by the above, Lord, have mercy.
This probably happens for a lot of reasons. First, for some reason, Catholics tend to equate "confession" with "confession of sin," rather than its more profound (and original, etymological) meaning which is "confession of God's mercy and forgiveness." There has been some bad liturgical modeling through the years, no doubt, which proves that bad liturgy can damage faith. We can't blame that on the Missale Romanum, though,  or the previous Sacramentary, the official texts of the Mass, because in the twenty or so examples of penitential litanies given there for the introductory rites of the mass, none of them is anything like the above. They are acclamations of praise: "Lord Jesus, you were sent to heal the contrite"; "Christ Jesus, you are son of God and son of Mary." Finally, guilt plays well with Catholics. It's much easier to navel-gaze and "aw, shucks" the divine Lover, to feel unworthy to walk fully in our baptismal identity, than it is to accept the mission of the Holy Spirit to live in the freedom of God's children.

Kyrie eleison is a phrase that comes to us from Roman civil religion, one that they probably appropriated from the older and more established Greek practices. It was an acclamation hurled to the emperor, or to a returning general, who was parading through the center of the city with the spoils of war. It was a way of saying, "Look, your grace, while you and your men have been out raiding Carthage and Alexandria, we've been back here paying double taxes and sending you our best crops, working our sorry Italian butts off. Here you are, back from the front, with gold and emeralds and Nubian slavegirls and some other treasures we've never even seen before. Remember who was feeding you! Slide some of that lucre to us! Throw some silver coins over here! Share the spoils of your victory! You got it, we ain't got it! Give us some!"

There's a little glimpse of this dynamic in the gospels in the story of the blind man Bartimaeus. If you recall, Jesus and the apostles are walking down the road (think of the emperor here.) From the side of the road, you have the blind beggar Bartimaeus shouting, "Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!" (Mk. 10:46; the Greek verb here is eleison - I looked it up!) What's going on here? First, the blind man calls out to Jesus as the Messiah-King, the "Son of David." He is committing treason and blasphemy all at once as far as anyone who might hear him is concerned, but he is showing that he expects that Jesus has something to give him that he does not have. Jesus asks him, "What do you want from me?" And he tells him, "I want to see." In other words, this is something that you, the Messiah-healer-king, can give me. His faith is rewarded, and he is given his sight. The parallelism with the use in civil religion as I outlined it above is complete.

There's nothing in the request for forgiveness at all! It's just a way of saying, you have a power that I don't have. You are kyrios, the Lord, the one who is in control of my world. In the context of the introductory rites, this is exactly the dynamic that we are reaching for, an attempt to wake each other up to the reality in the room: God is God, we aren't, and even though we don't always like it that way, that's the cosmos we live in. In gathering for liturgy, we need to become aware that we gather as the body of Christ, that every one of us is a member of it. We sing to take the part to which we've been invited in the great cosmic symphony that Christ has created in the Paschal Mystery as a love song to the Father. That mystery itself is an image of who the Father is, and their very life, the Holy Spirit, is the breath that gives life to us as members of Christ's body and enables our gathering. In the kyrie eleison we pray that Christ be the ruler of this world, where we are living today, that he take control of the evil influences that threaten us, and strengthen his claim on us through the building up of our strengths and gifts.

It's important to remember, though, what kind of kyrios Jesus is, and which God it is who is in control of the world. For that matter, what "control" means in the empire of God. "Lord"-ness in this empire is characterized by diversity-unity, solidarity, mutual service of gifts ordered to need. "Lord"-ness in this empire is agape that reveals itself as kenosis, love that is seen as self-emptying on behalf of others, creative, nurturing, life-giving. It has nothing—nothing—in common with the empires of earth or its lords. The gospel of this Sunday's feast finds its prince of peace, in fact, crucified between two other revolutionaries on Calvary. One of them recognizes that the savagery of arms leads to more savagery, and the dying Savior promises that his day will end in light. I can't help but believe that the other one was surprised by light and peace as well.

Faith then leads us to sing that great cruciform refrain of the angels over the fields of Bethlehem: Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. The glory of God in God's domain is peace among the citizens of earth who believe. Here, at the end of the year of grace, the story begins again.