Saturday, 20 October 2012

Kyrie eleison!

In the Life of Gregory Xandzta by Giorgi Merchule (8th-9th century), Gregory is asked to define the Georgian nation. "Georgia," he answers, "is that land where the Divine Liturgy is chanted in the Georgian tongue, but Kyrie, eleison is sung in Greek."[1] While the Christian Church has a long standing tradition of translating the divine services into the vernacular[2] - first the canonical hours and later the Divine Liturgy - this did not extend to every single part of the service. Just as the Hebrew phrases amen, hallelujah, hosanna, etc. remained untranslated in the context of Christian worship, so a number of Greek words and petitions remained even as vernacular services came to replace Greek outside the Hellenic world.[3] One such phrase, used more frequently than all the others combined, was the Kyrie, eleison (Lord, have mercy). Were you today to attend a Latin Tridentine Mass, a Syriac Liturgy, Coptic Liturgy, Ethiopian Liturgy, or even a Norwegian Lutheran Mass, you would hear Kyrie, eleison being sung in Greek. 

While the other prayers and petitions of the services were translated into the vernacular of each nation and people, in accordance with the divine will of God as revealed on the day of Pentecost, Kyrie, eleison - which is the summary of all other prayers, encompassing every need of the human condition - remained the universal prayer of the Christian people, citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, raised up to God "as with one voice" emphasising the fact that in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, barbarian or Scythian.[4] It seems a pity that the only liturgically centered churches in which Kyrie, eleison is no longer sung in Greek are those of the Eastern Orthodox, despite the fact that the rite of Constantinople, the heart of the Greek-speaking eastern Roman Empire, has been their only liturgical tradition for the last millennium. 

Of course, this is not a matter of dogma, but it would be nice if those local Eastern Orthodox churches who worship in the vernacular rather than the original Greek could rediscover and reinstate this last remaning remnant of Christian linguistic uniformity and universality,[5] which so beautifully expresses the unity we all share in the one Christ. At the very least, it should be something taken into account now as a host of new translations of the Liturgy are appearing in every corner of the world, particularly those used in Greek Orthodox churches.

[1] There is, as of yet, no proper English translation available, so this is an approximation.
[2] "Venacular" is, of course, not completely accurate. Church Slavonic, for example, is a language artificially constructed specifically for the purpose of liturgical translation - artificial in that it preserves the word order and syntax of the Greek original - and can therefore not be called a vernacular. Likewise, were you to visit an Arabic church, the language you would hear would be Fusha, a form used only in writing or formal communication, not a spoken language. It would therefore be more accurate to say that the Orthodox Church has always translated the services into a language that was understood, rather than a spoken vernacular. 
[3] The Trisagion, for example, was always sung in Greek in the Roman Church, long after it switched to Latin, and is still always sung in Greek in the Coptic Liturgy.
[4] cf. Colossians 3:11
[5] I make a distinction between the uniquely Christian character of the Greek phrase Kyrie, eleison and the Hebrew phrases, of which Amen is certainly the most important, which, although also signets of unity, are ones we share with the Jews (and, in the case of Amen, also Muslims). Therefore, while these Hebrew phrases remain, and act as an important link to our Judaic roots, the preservation of this Greek phrase should receive equal emphasis because it attests to the particular unity that should exist among Christians.

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