Ever ancient, ever new

Kyrie Eleison.

The good sisters said it back at Christ the King grammar school. Fifty years since graduation, and nothing much has changed.

“You’ve got one foot in the future, one foot in the past. And who knows where your head is at?”

I wander. I’m on fast forward to something I got to do, somewhere I need to be. Or I’m cruising in the Wayback Machine to yesterday’s work or an argument over punch ball rules in third grade.

Which means that my present is too often unattended.

It was a few weeks back and I was at Mass on the eve of Pentecost. It was at the cathedral — St. Paul Cathedral — in Pittsburgh. They fixed the old girl up to celebrate her 100th anniversary a few years back, and the faith sits here comfortably.

The Mass began and I was already warning myself not to wander off. Then came the sound.

The cantor was a young woman. Someone told me later that she is the spouse of a lawyer, which struck me as funny for reasons I can’t explain.

She sang, she led, she prayed:

Kyrie Eleison.

The congregation began to sing in response, but I couldn’t. I found myself nearly choked up.

Don’t ask me to explain. How many thousands of times in my life have I heard the Kyrie chanted or said? Maybe I was always somewhere else. Maybe there was something in her voice that captured the essence for me this time.

It’s as if the faith contained in that simple invocation — “Lord have mercy!” — had always meant much. But never so much.

The Kyrie is one of the oldest liturgical expressions, as old as our faith. It is Greek, and precedes by untold years the Latin liturgy of the sixth century.

Egeria, a fourth-century nun who traveled to the Holy Land and left us a diary in the form of her letters to her “sisters,” described a lamp-lighting ceremony at vespers in Jerusalem. As a litany of those who were commemorated were named one by one, “the many little boys who are always standing by answer with countless voices: Kyrie Eleison.”

The Mass is always there, ever ancient, ever new. I had a convert friend who said that at the Eucharistic Prayer the hair on the back of his neck would stand up at the thrill of the miracle he was witnessing. I didn’t take it as a criticism of this born-and-bred Catholic. Maybe I should have.

St. Justin, writing only a short century after the apostles, describes it: “On the so-called ‘Day of the Sun’ all of us, both from the city and from the farms, come together in one place. ... We all rise and pray together ... When our prayer is finished bread and wine are brought. And he who presides offers prayers and thanksgivings as best he can, and the people give their assent by saying ‘Amen.’ And a distribution and sharing of the Eucharistic oblation is made to each one.”

And as he adds in the same letter: “Not as ordinary bread and drink do we receive this food; but as our Savior Jesus Christ was made flesh through the word of God ... so have we been taught that this food is the flesh and blood of that same incarnate Jesus.”

I realized that I had slipped again. I went from the Kyrie to a fourth-century nun to St. Justin in a matter of moments. I had become distracted by the Mass at the Mass. Imagine trying to explain that to a nun back in fifth grade.

“All the good works of the world are not equal to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because they are the works of men,” the Curé of Ars explained. “But the Mass is the work of God.”

And people actually ask us why we stay Catholic.

Christe Eleison

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.

Newsletter Subscriptions
If you liked this article, you can sign up to receive free weekly newsletters.