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A History Of The Mass And Its Ceremonies In The Eastern And Western Church -Rev John O'Brien A.M.

When the priest has finished the Introit he proceeds to the middle of the altar, and there recites alternately with the Server the “Kyrie eleison,” or Minor Litany, as it used to be called in the early days. When it is a Solemn High Mass this is recited at the book. “Kyrie eleison,” and its accompanying “Christe eleison,” are two Greek expressions meaning “Lord have mercy on us,” “Christ have mercy on us.” Including what is said by the priest of this solemn petition for mercy, and what is said by the clerk or server, we have in all nine separate petitions, which liturgical writers interpret as follows: “Kyrie eleison” is said three times to God the Father for his manifold mercies; “Christe eleison” is said three times to God the Son, the author of our redemption; and “Kyrie eleison” is thrice repeated again to God the Holy Ghost, the sanctifier and consoler (Kozma, 168).

There is a very ancient tradition, and, to say the least of it, a very beautiful one, to the effect that our Divine Lord, on the occasion of his glorious ascension into heaven, tarried one day with each of the nine choirs of angels before he reached the celestial throne, and that in memory of this the “Kyrie” is repeated nine times (Neale, Song of Songs, p. 86). This tradition, according to some of the early Fathers, furnishes a key to the interpretation of that passage in the Canticle of Canticles where the spouse is represented as “leaping upon the mountains” and “skipping over the hills” (chap. 2:8). The mountains and hills, say they, are the grades of the angelic choir through which our Lord passed (ibid.)

Some attribute the introduction of the “Kyrie” into the Mass to Pope Gregory the Great; but this cannot be correct, for that holy pontiff himself said that he only caused it to be recited by both priest and people, because in the Greek Church it was solely confined to the latter, and even then there was no mention whatever of the “Christe eleison.” Another very strong proof of the earlier introduction of it is that the Fathers of the second Council of Vaison, held in A.D. 529, speak of it as if well known throughout the whole Church; and this was at least sixty years before Pope Gregory’s pontificate. We deem it well to quote the words of this council: “Let that beautiful custom of all the provinces of the East and of Italy be kept up—viz., that of singing with grand effect and compunction the ‘Kyrie eleison’ at Mass, Matins, and Vespers—because so sweet and pleasing a chant, even though continued day and night without interruption, could never produce disgust or weariness” (Summa Conciliorum, p. 89).

In many churches the custom prevailed for some time of intermingling with the “Kyrie,” certain intercalary expressions touching the nature of the feast of the occasion. Thus, on feasts of the Blessed Virgin it would read after this manner: “O Lord, thou lover of virginity, illustrious Father and Mary’s Creator, have mercy on us”; and so on with the rest of it (Romsee, p. 84).

The Ambrosians, or those who follow the Milanese Rite, recite the “Kyrie” at three different periods of the Mass—viz., after the “Gloria in excelsis,” after the Gospel, and at the conclusion of divine service.

Why said in Greek.—There are certain words and expressions so peculiarly adapted to the language in which they were first conceived that they lose all their force and beauty when translated into another. Of such a nature are the words “alleluia,” “hosanna, and “Kyrie eleison.” But there is a deeper reason than this for retaining them in the Mass. Originally the Church was principally formed out of three different nations—viz., the Latin, the Greek, and the Hebrew—and in order to testify that the belief of these three nations was one and the same, the Western or Latin Church thought it proper to preserve the memory of the fact by adopting phrases from each of them. From the Greek we have “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison,” and in the Improperia of Good Friday, “Agios Theos, Agios Ischuros, Agios Athanatos”; and from the Hebrew, “amen,” “alleluia,” “hosanna,” “Sabaoth,” “cherubim” and “seraphim,” and several others which occur now and then in the Epistles and Gospels. But liturgical writers give several other reasons for the retention of these languages in the Mass, foremost of which is that they have ever been looked upon as venerable and sacred, from the fact that the title of the cross was written in them; and as the sacrifice of the Mass and that offered on the cross are one and the same, except that the former is offered in an unbloody manner, what could be more appropriate than to give these hallowed languages a place in it? The Greek has innumerable other claims to the place it holds. It was the vernacular of some, in fact we might say of the vast majority, of the early heroes and defenders of the faith—of St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basil the Great, St. John Damascene, and hosts of others. It was in it that the very valuable and venerable translation of the Scriptures called the Septuagint was made, from which our Lord and his blessed Apostles drew so largely in their addresses to the people (Dixon, Introduction to the Sacred Scrip., p. 98).

One thing alone, to pass over all others, should entitle the Hebrew to a place in the Mass—viz., it was the language of Melchisedec, the prototype in the old law of our Divine Lord himself in relation to his sacred and eternal priesthood. It was also the vernacular of our Lord and his ever-blessed Mother, not to say of the majority of his disciples in the new law. We do not think it necessary to enter here into a full history of the ancient Hebrew and what it is so often known by—viz., the Syro-Chaldaic, or Syriac. Let it suffice to say that since the Babylonic captivity there has been no true Hebrew spoken by the Jews; and that what goes by that name in the New Testament was an Aramean branch of the Semitic family of languages known as the Syriac. It can be proved, almost to a demonstration, that this was the language our Lord spoke.

Oriental Usage regarding the “Kyrie eleison.”—The Liturgy of St. James is the only Eastern Liturgy which enjoins the recital of the “Kyrie” on the priest. In all the others it is solely confined to the choir and people, who, however, on no occasion say “Christe eleison.” The Liturgy of St. Chrysostom prescribes the recital of the “Kyrie” after all the principal supplications.








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