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Lord, Have Mercy

posted Sep 28, 2011, 5:59 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Aug 25, 2015, 5:38 PM ]

Early Christians celebrated the Liturgy in Greek until Constantine the Great converted the Roman Empire to this new faith.  It’s tempting to believe that as the Mass switched to Latin; this venerated Greek prayer was preserved in its original language just like Hebrew phrases such as Alleluia were.  But it wasn’t part of the liturgy yet; it was later borrowed from the Eastern Rite and introduced to the Romans, who created a transliteration of its variant, Christe, eléison

It’s a song “by which the faithful acclaim the Lord and implore God’s mercy,” and its first written origins can be traced to the fourth century Gallic pilgrim nun Etheria (or Sylvia).  In her travels, she reported a strange custom in Jerusalem during the lamp-lighting ceremony of Vespers, when one of the deacons read a list of petitions and "as he spoke each of the names, a crowd of boys stood there and answered him each time; Kýrie, eléison..."
 
At first, it was principally used as a response in litanies, which were sung after several antiphonal psalms during long processions to the church.  Yet when Pope Gregory I added it to the Sacramentary in the sixth century, he shortened the psalms and litanies into a single introit “in order that we may concern ourselves with these supplications Kýrie, eléison, Christe, eléison at greater length.” 
 
Over a century and a half later, the Kýrie remains simultaneously a petition and a prayer of thanksgiving; an acknowledgement of what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will continue to do...
 
Of all the parts of the Mass, it has infiltrated itself into pop culture more than any other.  In the 60’s, the folk rock vocal group The Association produced a stirring protest song to the Vietnam war, Requiem For The Masses, that included the Kýrie, eléisonThe 80’s pop rock band Mr. Mister came up with a single Kýrie invoking the chant. British artist DJ Rap produced a 1992 single called Divine Rhythm which heavily sampled the intro and vocal from Mr. Mister’s single.   Mr. Mister’s was then covered by Christian pop group Acapella Vocal Band (AVB) in 1994 and became a hit on the Contemporary Christian Music chart.   And Christian singer/songwriter Mark Schultz remixed this single in his 2002 recording Song Cinema.

In films, Michael Nyman includes it in The Libertine starring Johnny Depp. Choir boys sing it in 1963’s Lord of the Flies, based on William Golding’s novel.   The psychedelic rock band The Electric Prunes’ version is in 1969’s road movie Easy Rider.   Trevor Jones used it in his 1995 horror film Hideaway.   And it’s heard in Disney’s 1996 The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

On Broadway, it’s not mentioned in The Phantom of the Opera, yet in Gaston Leroux’s novel, Kýrie, eléison is the name of the wedding song the Phantom writes for Christine.   Yet in both the 1996 musical Rent and its 2004 film adaptation, characters quote it at the beginning of La Vie Boheme (along with the Dies Irae and the Mourner’s Kaddish) as part of a mock requiem in honor of “the death of Bohemia”.

Kýrie, eléison appears as the loading menu theme in several of the Castlevania video game series created by Konami for Game Boy Advance; including Dracula X: Rondo of Blood and Circle of the MoonAnd the popular 2006 anime series Death Trap showcased a unique and atmospheric rendition of the chant utilizing full orchestral vocals.