Monday, February 16, 2009

Eleison in Care of Souls

The Holy Scriptures are filled with the cry of eleison, which through the liturgy proceeds as a movement along with the introit, Gloria, and the collect. The Gallic Pilgrim Lady Etheria details the Jerusalem liturgy in 390, starting the at the end of Vespers, “The bishop rises and stands before the rails, that is, before the cave, and one of the deacons makes the customary commemoration of individuals one by one. And as the deacon pronounces each name the many little boys who are always standing by, answer with countless voices : Kyrie eleison, or as we say Miserere Domine? And when the deacon has finished all that he has to say, first the bishop says a prayer and prays for all, then they all pray, both the faithful and catechumens together.”[1]

Pope Gelasius is credited (492-496 AD) with introducing the Kyrie-litany. The list of petitions in this litany correlates closely with the themes of the general prayer prior to Gelasius, “We are justified in concluding that Gelasius had removed the general prayer for the Church, and had substituted the Kyrie-litany.”[2] This original text, known as the Deprecatio Gelasii is exceedingly rich in scope, the 15th petition begging our Lord, “That our flesh may be free of blemish and our souls living in faith, Hear us, Lord, hear us.” In the Rule of St. Benedict the litania (or supplicatio litanie ed est Kyrie eleison) was part of the ending of every Daily Office and was used to introduce the Lord’s Prayer (true also for the LSB). In Lauds and Vespers, priest prayed a fuller litania, like that in the Deprecatio.

A great treasure of the Lutheran Service Book is its Litany (the Altar Book offers a musical setting). There is a ninefold invocation of Christos and Kyrios which serves as a prelude to the public orations of lament and petition. The litany is a gorgeous lament that plumbs the depths of the marks and Holy Mysteries of the church – incarnation, nativity, baptism, precious death and burial, and of course the resurrection. The eleison is orated as “Have mercy,” “Spare us, good Lord,” Hear us, O Lord,” and “Help us, good Lord.” The congregation asks for help in the hour of death, and mercy and deliverance for woman, children, and infants. The lament petitions with all confidence, “to beat down Satan under our feet.” The Lutheran Litany when prayed by a congregation sounds like a swelling symphonic lament. Even when spoken, the varieties of eleisons have a deeply harmonious quality about them, given the lyrical rhythm and drama which moves from pestilence and bloodshed, then concluding with a threefold Agnus Dei.

The litany can be used responsively in both informal and public worship settings. It is an inexhaustible pastoral tool for catechizing Christians into a theology of lament. It shapes worship practice – both public and private, along with family devotions, and steers one into a crucix theologia. The movement of the litany traces and creates a new relationship of faithfulness and confidence. It is spoken in a spirit of plea – of insistence that God will hear and act.

The kyrie litany and other expressions of communal lament are indispensible in worship and pastoral care. The private laments, we may safely say find their identity in the corporate laments of the ecclesia. If Christians are starved of a theology of corporate lament in worship they will struggle to find a bold lament in private. Oswald Bayer speaks on the fragmented individuality of radical modernity, as a reaction against Lyotard’s meta-narratives. Law, evil, public guilt, and lament take on radically new interpretations based upon a culture of existentialism, “There is a threat of the diffusion of the self and finally of surrender and failure to recognize accountability and responsibility. The threat exists of the refusal to perceive the continuity of personal being.”[3]

A giant leap of faith has proceeded in regards to ontological questions as being solely guided and served by sociological and psychological studies. The human being is seen as a creature tossed about by nature and nurture, but nevertheless free, good, and capable for self-realization and fulfillment. In way Bayer sees both modernity and postmodernity as antinomian, blending both an unsurpassed “pride of the individual “ couple with a “despairing existentialism.” The Law, however, has always been a supernatural and universal force which no individual or community can ever run from or free himself of.

“The human being is addressed through the Law: ‘Adam, where are you?’ (Gen 3:9); and, ‘Where is your brother?’ (Gen 4:9). Through the Law the human being is localized and individualized. Even if this human being – precisely according to modern and post modern transformation – no longer directly recognizes the one who speaks in the Law, perhaps, indeed, does not even hear a voice, he or she nevertheless experience more or less anonymously the inescapable demand: ‘Here you and no other are addressed. Here you are responsible. If you evade it, you are guilty.’ The human being is ultimately responsible…The unconditionality of the demand, which proceeds not merely from the fellow human being, but simultaneously arises within my conscience as the ‘interior court of judgment,’ is a reminder of the theological doctrine of the last judgment.”

God is constantly speaking his law and gospel and creatures continually hear it. In the existentialist “free from the I,” philosophical tradition, the human creature has trumpeted his spontaneity, free, and autonomy, but in his fleeing has run headfirst into the supernatural forces of the law, anxiety, and guilt. Bayer writes, “It is much more the massive experiences of guilt and sorrow, of responsibility and irresponsibility in the aporias of politics, economics and scientific ethics, which oppress us and confront us daily with the reality of evil.”[4] The present downturn in the U.S. economy has thrust the population into a feverish panic to figure out the mysterious reason why things have gone wrong. Every 24 news station features countless economic experts to decipher the workings of the economy, offering false hope and various schemes of bail outs and stimulus packages. Though, the country comparatively is drowning in prosperity, she remains the most dependent on anti-depressants and psychotropic drugs to navigate through each day. Public shame and guilt are wrought in the innermost caverns of the human heart which intuitively sees an abyss of moral failings – the neglect of the elderly, infanticide, and the violent ripping of marital bonds and familial obligations.

Pastoral care must meet the common experiences of guilt which plague the ecclesia. When Martin Luther passed from this earthly life, a shred of paper was found inside his coat pocket, in which he confessed, “We are all dying beggars.” This is a lovely cry of sorrow and grief. It is a confession of many things – that of guilt, helplessness, and ultimate dependence (not in the Schleiermacherian sense). Namely it is an admonition of guilt, a demonstrative final faithful grunt of justification by faith alone in Christ. Needless to say, it is a lament of the deplorative state apart from God’s incarnation into the world to justify the ungodly. The beggarly nature of the human creature is not a declaration of a cynic, but rather the starting point of human freedom. The beggar has nothing to declare of his own. He is clothed in shame, estranged from God, and sinful through and through. He has no claim of righteous work or property to call his own. His insistent plea is spoken in lament, and he is utterly helpless. His need is only found in the property, work, and charity of another. He needs the fleshly clothing of another, heavenly drink from another, the spoken words of forgiveness from another. It comes from outside (extra nos) by way of gift and enters in. Pastoral care begins by an analysis of the working of the law in a sinner’s life and diagnosing the cure in the Holy Gospel and its promise, life and salvation in Christ. From thence Pastoral care must insistently locate individual and corporeal affects of the law on the human heart. The Kyrie and liturgy of lament will always be treated and balanced with God’s law and gospel which he speaks throughout all times.

[1] Full text of Pilgrimmage of Etheria found here
[2] Joseph A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Benzinger Brothers, New York, 1959), p. 191.
[3] Oswald Bayer, “With Luther in the Present: The Diagnostic Power of Reformation Theology,” Presentation to the Evangelische Akademie Sachsen-Anhalt in Wittenberg on October 30, 2004, translated by Mark A. Seifrid.
[4] Bayer, “With Luther in the Present: The Diagnostic Power of Reformation Theology,” p. 8.


  1. we had a great discussion last thursday about the litany and the use of the service in time of humiliation & prayer (penitence). too bad you couldn't have included it in your paper. what is this for?

  2. Tell me a few things I missed out on - from the discussion


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