Watch the Language
My mother taught my brother and me her native tongue, Spanish, before English. It was her planned strategy, not due to a linguistic deficiency.
Despite arriving from Cuba in 1959, she graduated with a bachelors degree in music from the University of Miami; and earned specialist, master and doctorate degrees from Nova University. She was a 2nd grade teacher, a music teacher and an English teacher before retiring in 1997 after 33 years of service. Her published poetry is in English.
She saw the value of teaching us Spanish in the home first, and English once school started. Like most everyone in Miami, my brother and I switch easily between languages—even mid-sentence.
Being fluent in both has helped me appreciate language and understand its limitations. It has greatly influenced the way I study Scripture and read Church writings.
WHEN WORDS FAIL
Scripture scholars attest to the difficulty in translating the sacred texts. Hebrew and Greek words often times do not have equivalents in the target language. Having a knowledge of both English and Spanish helps me understand this difficulty all the more. If you know both as well, here’s an example. Translate this sentence into Spanish:
Do you know how to count?
Then this one:
Do you know my friend Jose?
In the first sentence, a typical translation is:
¿Sabes cómo contar?
¿Conoces a mi amigo José?
In the examples, the same English word know is translated into two different Spanish words, because of its context. Those who speak Spanish and English made this translation distinction unconsciously.
In the first, know becomes saber. This Spanish word for know is used when referring to a learned skill or knowledge of academic, quantifiable, measurable information. Do you know your time tables, your phone number, how to drive home, how to play the piano, how to swim, etc.
In the second example, know becomes conocer. This word also means to know, but not in an academic sense—it is experiential knowledge. With some exceptions, it is typically used in reference to people–the knowledge of persons.
English simply does not make the distinction.
With this example in mind, we can better grasp the difficulty in properly understanding the words of a Greek prayer recited at Mass after the Penitential Rite—the Kyrie Eleison—which has been translated as Lord, have mercy.
The Meaning Behind the Words
Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of the Kyrie Eleison is not to express contrition, guilt or regret. In fact, the Kyrie is not part of the Penitential Rite. The Ceremonial of Bishops—a document that serves as a liturgical model—makes this point clear:
“After the penitential rite, the Kyrie is said…” —The Ceremonial of Bishops, 134
The intended liturgical purpose of the Kyrie can be discovered by looking at the origin of the word eleison.
The Greek word eleison (most often translated as mercy) is derived from ἔλεος (eleos), which has the same root as the word for olive oil—a substance used by ancient civilizations as a healing ointment to soothe and comfort the afflicted.
In the Bible, olive oil was used as fuel to light the Menorah, to anoint priests and kings, for sacred offerings and to prepare bodies for burial. It was especially useful for medicinal purposes:
“Is anyone among you sick? …they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord…” —James 5:14
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus describes a Jewish traveller who is beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the road to Jericho. After a priest and Levite both avoid the unnamed man, a Samaritan finally stops to dress his wounds (trauma in Greek) with wine and what is most likely olive oil:
“But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He…poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them.” —LUKE 10:33-34
Olive oil was commonly used to soothe irritation, soften skin, and heal cuts and bruises, while fermented wine—which is typically between 7% to 15% ethyl alcohol—would have served as a natural disinfectant.
Chesed (דסח) is the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek eleos. It appears extensively in the Old Testament—23 times in the Psalms alone. It is challenging to render this word in English as there isn’t an accurate equivalent—no single word can capture the nuance of its meaning.
For example, the word chesed is used in Psalm 13:5. When rendered in English, different translations have chosen different words to convey its meaning. Below is the Hebrew text and various English translations.
יתחטב ךדסחב ינאו ׃ךתעושיב יבל לגי
“But I trust in your mercy; grant my heart joy in your salvation.”
New American Bible
“But I have trusted in your lovingkindness; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”
New American Standard Bible
“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.”
New International Version
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”
English Standard Version
“I have trusted upon your kindness; my heart will exult in your salvation.”
Aramaic Bible in Plain English
As shown above, chesed has been translated as mercy, loving-kindness, unfailing love, steadfast love and kindness. Theologically, it embodies the attitude that parties of a covenant ought to maintain—persistent and steadfast love and loyalty.
Time and time again in the Old Testament, God’s chesed to the covenant people of Israel keeps him from abandoning them despite their wayward tendencies.
This is a very different understanding of eleison, which, in English, is most often rendered simply as mercy. The word mercy has the unfortunate judicial connotations of crime, punishment and acquittal—“I plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court.” It conjures images of a judge eager to administer punishment as the accused, cowering in fear, begs for clemency or pardon.
Therefore, the phrase Kyrie eleison, when recited at Mass, can be better understood as:
Lord, soothe and heal us, and show us your loving-kindness.
And it is precisely us to whom this prayer is reserved.
Kyrie Eleison: For the Pilgrim Church
It is we, the pilgrim Church on earth, who need to proclaim Lord, have mercy. Those in heaven do not need the mercy of God—it has already been granted, and they are experiencing his glory. Those in hell have rejected God’s mercy and have condemned themselves.
Without acknowledging our need for eleison—to be soothed and healed—we risk seeing Jesus only as a moral teacher or philosopher and not who he really is—our Lord and Savior.