“Kyrie, eléison” (“Lord, Have Mercy”) Bradley Jersak


Following their Jewish forbears, whose hymns proclaimed, “Your mercy endures forever!” the first Christians crafted a simple and beautiful prayer, “Kyrie, eléison,” which translated is “Lord, have mercy.”

To get a feel for the meaning of the word “mercy,” we think of how, in Hebrew, it doubles for the word “womb,” evoking a mother’s instinctive loving care and nourishment for the child of her womb.

The New Testament adds another dimension, where the Greek word for “mercy” sounds a lot like the word for olive trees, olive oil and anointing oil. The reference is to the super-abundant generosity of an olive tree in providing the oil used for everything from anointing kings for service to healing ointment to hand soap! Like the olive tree, God is forever lavish in his provision of mercy.


The foundation for our understanding of mercy is God’s own character. The ancients came to understand this fundamental truth: that God is good, and all that God does is goodness. Some even referred to God as “the Good.”

But it’s not that God’s goodness is true in some abstract way. For God to be the Good, they saw how he IS actually good in his relationship to us. The Psalmist proclaims, “The Lord is good to all, and he has compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 145:9). Jesus adds that our heavenly Father “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteousness” (Matthew 5:45).

In other words, the goodness of God is something we actually experience. The Bible calls that experience “mercy.” That is, the mercy of God is every experience of God’s goodness—every manifestation of God’s love for us. Sunshine or rain, provision or protection, health or healing, abundant crops and flourishing families, safe travels or happy coincidences. You name it, every sunrise, every blossom, every tender kiss… these many mercies are all reminders of God’s goodness worthy of gratitude.

But note well: it’s not that we regard every mercy as divine intervention, as if our prayers were incantations and God’s mercies were magical treats for those who know how to turn on heaven’s tap. Jesus’ point is that God’s goodness is neither earned nor arbitrary. The infinite spring of God’s goodness and mercy flows for all people at all times, whether we’re living for him or not, doing well or struggling. T

Thus, the mercies of God are not reserved for miraculous moments, but the stuff of daily life, often served up naturally through secondary sources—through birdsong, a good chef, a creative artisan, or a faithful friend. Can we thank God for these? Absolutely, because God the Good is the first cause of these mercies.


Unfortunately, Christless religion seems endemic to the human condition. The moment we perceive God must be real, humanity begins to conceive false gods that distort the divine image. Among these is the God of retribution, inclined to anger, wrath, and punishment.

When God is reduced in that way, our definition of mercy is instantly diminished and distorted. “Lord, have mercy” no longer means “shower me in goodness.” It is squeezed down to “Withhold your wrath.” That beautiful prayer becomes the groveling plea of anxious slaves, flinching before their seething Master.

That slanderous way of seeing God first took root when, after their first stumble, Adam and Eve fashioned an image of God from their own shame—one from whom they needed to hide. “Lord, have mercy” was tainted with disgrace (dis-Grace) into “I beg you not to smite me.”


It’s high time we retrieved mercy in its true and ancient sense. A visual may serve us well. Imagine God as the Source who created the universe and everything and everyone who lives in it. Imagine that Source, the Good-to-all, continually pouring out an infinite and ever-flowing waterfall of goodness over our world and over our lives from the beginning and forever. To pray, “Lord, have mercy” doesn’t create the Source, or the waterfall, or the mercy. Our prayer doesn’t initiate or increase the flow of divine mercy. Then why pray it?

  • We pray “Lord, have mercy” to remind ourselves that despite the nagging lies of Christless religion, God is good and that all God does is goodness.
  • We pray “Lord, have mercy” to remind ourselves that despite our apprehension, God has not abandoned us or withdrawn his mercy, even for a moment, regardless of our many missteps and misdeeds.
  • We pray “Lord, have mercy” to orient ourselves under the waterfall in a posture of receptivity and openness. When we open our hands and hearts to mercy, we can receive God’s mercy rather than deny or deflect it.
  • We pray “Lord, have mercy” to lift our downcast faces toward heaven, interrupting our penchant for despair and snapping out panic. We raise our eyes to the kind eyes of the All-merciful face of Jesus Christ, whose gaze gives us reason for peace.
  • We pray “Lord, have mercy” as a prayer for others that pulls them under the waterfall of God’s mercy, reminding ourselves that God loves and cares for them, too.
  • We pray “Lord, have mercy” as a way to detach from our demands for a specific outcome that we regard as proof that God is good. When we pray “Lord, have mercy,” we stop dictating the terms of answered prayer, knowing that God is always merciful, so God always says YES to mercy. Then we can become attentive to how that mercy appears.
  • Finally, we pray “Lord, have mercy” because so often, we just don’t know how else to pray. But the Spirit hears that prayer, even when we groan it helplessly, and transposes it perfectly before God’s Throne of Grace. Knowing that, we have hope in the Good God who always
Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More