In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the hero discovers the answer to the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything: it is 42. Actually, he got it wrong. It is 41.
The Coptic Rite frequently uses a hymn which consists basically of one phrase repeated 41 times. I am referring of course, to the KYRIE ELEISON.
The words are Greek, not Coptic, harking back to the early days of Christianity when Greek was the common language in use throughout most of the Mediterranean civilisations. The Gospels were originally written in Greek and the liturgies we use in the Coptic Church were originally all in Greek. It is only as time went on that they wee translated to the vernacular Coptic. Even today, the standard form of the “Coptic” liturgies we pray – when we say we are praying in Coptic – has a pretty significant percentage that is Greek, not Coptic.
But I’m actually not interested in the language side of things today – I wanted to contemplate on the spiritual significance of the 41 Kyrie Eleisons. You might have asked yourself at some stage, “Why do we just repeat the one phrase over and over like that? Didn’t Jesus warn us against just such a practice?”
“And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:7)
Yes, God knows that we need His mercy. But the prayer is for our benefit, not His. It is a reminder to us of that need for mercy, lest we should ever forget and think ourselves self-sufficient without Him. As I sing the repetitions of “Lord have mercy!” I can have two things running through my mind. One is my deep need for the mercy of God; the other is the mercy of God itself, and the God of Mercy Himself.
Our need for mercy stems from our inherent weakness and moral frailty. God is all-good. We desire to be one with God. Yet we sin. By sinning, we exclude ourselves from being one with God. Oops. How is this problem to be solved? There is nothing we can do about it, for it does not lie within our power. Only He can do something about it … and He did.
God’s solution to the problem was to become one of us, to suffer for us and to die for us, and then to rise again from the dead, satisfying the law of justice, yet opening a door to the infinite possibilities of mercy. On His way to completing this course, He was tied to a post and whipped. The 41 Kyrie Eleisons bring us to the very Roman pavement upon which his tired knees rested, and challenge us to look on as the sadistic whip, sharp stones and rusty nails tied to its cords, is scraped over and over across the bare back of the Humble Servant.
Can you stand here unmoved?
What heart of stone would not cry out, “Stop!” Not only is this inhuman, it is uniquely unjust, for all have sinned, all deserve the reward of their evil … but not his Man. Anyone but this Man. This is He whose gentle eyes gave hope to the woman caught in adultery after He saved her life from the bloodthirsty mob … the same eyes that now weep in pain and agony. This is He whose strong voice echoed over the Mount as He taught the multitudes to be meek, lowly, poor in spirit … the same voice that cries out now uncontrollably in suffering. Anyone but this Man.
Imagine that from the midst of His blood and spasming muscles His eyes glanced out for a moment through tangled, sweaty hair and met with yours … And what will you say now? Can anyone remain silent? There is no “I will do something to save You!” You will find no comforting if futile action to ease the burden of this monstrous event. It is done. It is finished. It has happened. And all because of our sins. He took what is ours, and gave us what is His.
What then will you say? Is there anything else we can say, other than “Lord have mercy!”?
Sometimes we pray this hymn with a fast tempo, as if the pain of it is such that we only wish to bring it to an end as soon as we can. At other times, we pray it more slowly, as befits a dirge of sadness. Always, we should pray it with this image firmly held before the eyes of our minds: the broken Body, leaking blood from a thousand points, submitting to this suffering … that I deserved instead.
We cry for mercy because we never meant it to come to this. All those times we gave in to sin … it was never meant to end like this! We cry for mercy for the chains that bind us still to our frail humanity, the undependable, unfaithful, unthankful and brute nature that drags our eternal spirits down into the dust of sin again and again … only the Suffering Servant has the power to break those chains, and so, even while He suffers, we cry out for His mercy. It should be He who cries out for mercy from His tormentors, but instead, it was He who administered mercy to them as He hung on the Cross, asking for His Father’s forgiveness for them. He has taught us to ask, and so we do.
No, this is no vain repetition. This is not multiplying empty useless words (or at least, it never should be). This is our witness, so many times each day, that we know and appreciate the sacrifice of profound love that our loving Saviour offered for us. If any words of prayer have meaning, it is surely these simple words!