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Question 96.

Your blessing dear Father Christopher,

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 have mercy.
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 Greek.
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?

In Christ,


Answer to Question 96.

Dear Akakios,
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 Greek words.
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 record.
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 (eleos).
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 world.
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 translation.
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 qualities.
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 Greek.
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 underling.
Surprisingly he observed that: when praying the Elder would shine brightly, and particularly when with tears he prayed "Lord, have mercy on me."
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
Fr. Christopher
Have a happy and blessed Nativity and Chronia Polla!