Your blessing dear Father
I've read some of your liturgical materials and I noticed you recommend
two answers from the choir after each petition: Kyrie eleison or Lord
I'm really curious about that because in the parish where I serve the
clergymen explain that "Kyrie eleison" has a deep and intricate meaning
that surpasses the immediate translation "Lord have mercy". They say the
use of the original Greek brings a pedagogical opportunity to tell
people the full meaning of this supplication. According to their
interpretation, Kyrie eleison refers to a deep act of offering ourselves
to God, like those loser warlords who surrender to their conquerors. So,
they prefer to not translate it and Kyrie eleison is maintained as in
Personally I don't feel comfortable with that since the expression
occurs in so many sacred texts (psalm 50, the gospel, the Jesus prayer)
and only during the litanies we decide to keep it in Greek. It looks a
little bit arbitrary. Most orthodox nations translate "Kyrie eleison".
Would they worship less perfectly?
From your perspective, is it correct to avoid the translation of "Kyrie
eleison"? Are there such "untranslatable" expressions in our hymns? For
example, why "Eis polla eti Dhespota" is still sung in greek everywhere?
Answer to Question 96.
Certainly there are words in Greek that have no equivalent English
counterpart so they cannot be accurately translated. But this is true
for all languages; there is no true 100% translation from one language
to another. When the scriptures were translated from the Hebrew to Greek
the translators retained the Hebrew words Hosanna, Alleluia, Sabaoth and
Amen, because, although these words could be defined and given a literal
translation using several words, there were no single corresponding
Similarly there are Greek ecclesiastical words which cannot be
translated with a single word. Theotokos for example is usually retained
as in the Greek. The title Theotokos for the Virgin Mary was recognized
by the Orthodox Church at the Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus
in 431. The theological significance of the title is to emphasize that
Mary's son, Jesus, is fully God, as well as fully human, and that Jesus'
two natures (divine and human) were united in a single Person of the
Trinity. A translation of this title into English can be done in a
number of ways. The most common is Mother of God, though God-bearer and
Birth-giver to God are also fairly common. There are difficulties with
all these translations, however. The most literally correct one is
Birth-giver to God, or She who gave birth to God. God-bearer comes
close, but the problem with using God-bearer is that there is another
Greek word, the word Theophoros (Θεοφορος), which is usually and more
correctly translated as God-bearer, so using God-bearer for Theotokos
would not be appropriate.
Most English-speaking Orthodox Churches have adopted to retain the
original Greek Theotokos. Personally I prefer to use the translation,
Mother of God, because it is easily understandable to an English
speaking Orthodox, even though this translation is not totally accurate
and there is another Greek phrase "Μητηρ Θεου" which is correctly
translated as Mother of God.
As for Kyrie Eleison, does the English translation Lord have mercy relay
the true meaning of the prayer? The word eleison derives from the word
eleos (έλεος ) and has the same root with the similar sounding Greek
word for olive-oil elaio (έλαιο ). Olive-oil was used as a soothing
agent for bruises and wounds. The oil was poured onto the wound and
gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting and making whole the
injured part. In the New Testament we see its use as a healing agent in
the parable of the Good Samaritan:
"A certain Samaritan... came... and had compassion on him...and bound up
his wounds, pouring in oil and wine... (Luke 10:34)."
Also from the General Epistle of St. James: "Is any sick among you? let
him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him,
anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: (5:14)."
Thus elaios (oil), as with eleos (mercy), is synonymous with soothing,
comforting and taking away pain.
The Hebrew word translated into Greek as eleos (mercy) is "hesed". In
the Old Testament it often refers to God's lovingkindness expressed in
His covenant relationship with Israel. It denotes his persistent and
unconditional tenderness, kindness, and mercy, a relationship in which
He seeks after man with love and mercy. Apart from its basic meanings of
steadfast love, lovingkindness and compassion, hesed also means loyalty
and devotion, faithfulness, strength, steadfastness, and
trustworthiness. But hesed is not used arbitrarily; it presupposes the
existence of a relationship between the parties involved. It is the
devoted love promised within a covenant; hesed is love that is willing
to commit itself to another by making its promise a matter of solemn
The Greek eleos adopted the full meaning of the Hebrew hesed and that is
why many feel that the English word mercy falls far short of the full
interpretation. In fact western interpretation of the word mercy often
refers to justice or acquittal which has nothing to do with God's mercy
Thus the arguments for maintaining the Greek Kyrie eleison are many and
supported by tradition because the Catholic Church and the Anglican
Church have used it for centuries and is well known in the western
Having said this, I see no reason why the English Lord have mercy cannot
also adopt the full meaning of the Greek and Hebrew. If as you say those
who retain the original Greek do so as a matter of pedagogy, then, at
least for the Orthodox Church, people can be taught that when they pray
"Lord have mercy" it means so much more and beyond the immediate
In my liturgical translations I have used both because I feel it is a
matter of preference. I serve the Liturgy in English on Saturdays and
here I prefer the Greek Kyrie Eleison, but in my private prayers I often
use both the English and Greek depending on which first comes to mind.
In general, when translating, I prefer to use an English equivalent or
near equivalent because it is much better to pray in a language one
understands than hearing foreign words that do not truly register in the
mind. As you say, most orthodox nations translate "Kyrie eleison" into
there own language and you ask - would they worship less perfectly? I
feel that there are some that actually believe that their worship would
be less perfect and hold on to the original Greek fanatically, in some
cases disturbingly as though certain words and formulae have magical
There are of course some forms of expression that do not translate very
well into another language like "Eis polla eti Dhespota". Literally it
means "unto many years, O Master."
Eti is the ancient Greek for years which in Modern Greek has been
replaced with Chronia. In the Greek world it is the most common form of
wish given to another person. If it is a person's birthday we wish him
Chronia Polla (Χρόνια Πολλά), if it is his name day we wish him Chronia
Polla, at Christmas we wish Chronia Polla, at Theophany - Chronia Polla,
at Pascha - Chronia Polla, marriage - Chronia Polla, anniversary -
Chronia Polla, if fact for every occasion we wish someone Chronia Polla
– we wish them to have many many more years.
But what does it actually mean? It is an expression that the person may
continue to live for many years in good health, joy, patience and every
good thing we can wish upon someone and within a religious context for
that person to continue in his faithfulness to God. There is no parallel
English expression that comes close to resembling its fullness of
meaning. Happy birthday, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Best wishes
all seem so empty in comparison.
"Eis polla eti Dhespota" can be literally translated (unto many years, O
Master), but you have to admit that is sounds strange and unfamiliar to
the English ear. I do not know Slavonic but maybe, like in English, it
didn't translate very well so it was decided to adopt the original
Akakios, may I suggest that in Church you embrace the formula that your
clergy have adopted. Kyrie eleison is not only Greek, for many centuries
it also belongs to western liturgical tradition, but in your private
prayers pray in whichever way you feel comfortable.
In the Greek world and in monastic circles there is a very well known
pedagogical story concerning the prayer Lord have mercy.
Many years ago lived a young man in a certain village, who from a young
age desired to become a hermit. But there were some difficulties: He was
illiterate; he stuttered, was slow in intelligence and had family
obligations. But at the age of about 40 years he was released from these
obligations and was able to follow his holy desire. He left his village
and wandering from place to place came to a desert island, where he
found an old ascetic who gave rest to his heart and became his
Surprisingly he observed that: when praying the Elder would shine
brightly, and particularly when with tears he prayed "Lord, have mercy
The Elder was also illiterate, but his advice was invaluable and full of
wisdom and his whole mental effort was concentrated on how to teach his
underling to also pray the "Lord, have mercy on me."
On the last day of his life, the Elder hermit gave his underling his
worn out cassock, laid down, made the cross and saying three times,
"Lord, have mercy on me", "Lord, have mercy on me", "Lord, have mercy on
me" his soul flew to heaven.
After the death and burial of the Elder, the underling now lived all
alone on the desert island as a hermit in a cave, following the same
ritual prayer and rules received by the Elder. So passed 30 years
without him seeing another person.
Over the years, his stammering and slowness became worse and he began to
confuse the words of the Prayer and prayed saying, "Lord, do not have
mercy on me."
But his heart was totally given to God and tears flowed from his eyes
when day and night he repeated thousands of times "Lord, do not have
mercy on me."
One spring day a ship moored close to the desert island. One of the
passengers was the bishop of that province and the captain wishing to
please the bishop took him to the island with a boat.
They saw a path which they followed and reached a cave where from inside
they heard the mournful prayer of the ascetic continually saying "Lord,
do not have mercy on me." The bishop proceeded and saw the bony old
ascetic, with eyes sunken in their sockets, kneeling and shining
brightly while praying and crying.
The bishop tactfully told the old ascetic that his prayer wasn't correct
and that he should be saying "Lord, have mercy on me."
The ascetic was deeply troubled believing that for 30 years he had been
doing harm to his soul and burst into tears pleading the bishop to teach
him to say the prayer correctly, which he did for some time.
When it was time to leave the ascetic escorted the bishop to the coast
repeating with him "Lord, have mercy on me", so as not to forget.
The ascetic watched as the ship departed saying continuously "Lord, have
mercy on me."
Five minutes hadn't passed when the ascetic forgot the prayer and in
despair burst into tears saying what will become of me?
In his despair he ran into the sea running upon the water towards the
ship. The sailors frightened by seeing the old man coming towards them
shouted "a ghost, a ghost!" Hearing the commotion the bishop came upon
the deck and saw the ascetic on the water shouting "what must I say O
Master what must I say?" The bishop overcome with emotion replied: "My
son whatever you used to say continue saying; this is the best prayer
for your soul."
In your case the moral of the story is it doesn't matter if you pray
Kyrie eleison or Lord have mercy as long as you pray with your heart.
With love in Christ
Have a happy and blessed Nativity and Chronia Polla!