And behold, two blind men sitting by the roadside, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent; but they cried out the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”
In the last reflection, we mentioned that the hymns of the Orthodox Church are divided into three categories—hymns that praise God, hymns of supplication that ask God for things and hymns that teach. In the category of hymns of supplication, the most often heard hymn is also the shortest one, only three words: Lord, have mercy.
“Lord, have mercy” functions as a prayer. I once heard a priest give a sermon that I will never forget. He was speaking about how crucial it is that the congregation sings the responses of the services together. He went so far as to say that the petitions of the services, offered by the priest or deacon, are merely prompts to the people, who offer the prayer in their response. In other words, the priest prompts the people to pray “for peace in the world,” and the people then offer the prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” He prompts the people to pray for almost everything that the mind can conceive—for our country, for our president, for our civil authorities, for favorable weather, for those who are sick, for deliverance wrath and danger and many other things. At each prompt, the people respond with “Lord, have mercy.”
This is one of the things that makes Orthodox worship so beautiful—we are intimately involved in offering the prayer. Obviously, some of the hymns of the church are difficult to sing. The hymns of Holy Week, as an example, are only heard once a year. They are also meant to teach us. Thus during these hymns of Holy Week, we are to take on, in part, the role of students in absorbing the knowledge imparted through the hymns and Scriptures. No one expects congregational singing of the more difficult and obscure hymns.
However, a large part of Holy Week (as well as worship outside of Holy Week) involves petitions and responses. Because the responses are the same each time we worship, it is important that we participate in offering them. So that for part of our liturgical experience, we are learning, for another part we are worshipping, and for another part we are proclaiming. The proclaiming part comes in the hymns that praise God and declare His wonders. And there are ample hymns such as these throughout Holy Week and in other services.
Going back to “Lord, have mercy,” this hymn declares three things to us each time we sing it. First, it sets up a relationship between us and the Lord. He is the Lord, and we are the followers, the servants, the children, and the friends of the Lord. Because He is the Lord, and we are not, there is an implied reliance on Him as well as obedience to Him.
Secondly, “Lord, have mercy” is an admission that we are in need, it is a cry for help, like the blind men we read about above. Mercy is sparing us from the thing that has befallen us, in many cases (though not in the case of the blind man), something we deserve. For instance, we’ve all seen in movies a condemned man who pleads to a judge for mercy. Such a man deserves his fate. However, when the judge spares his life, that is an act of
mercy. The blind men pleaded for mercy. They didn’t even ask for healing, just mercy, in whatever way Jesus wanted to show it to them. When we cry to God for mercy, we are asking for Him to spare us things we deserve, as well as to help us through things that have befallen us, such as sickness or bad weather. The cry for mercy, however, leaves it to Jesus, to show that as He wills. In the case of the blind men, this involved healing. Mercy could have also involved God providing someone to take care of them. God offers His mercy as He wills to offer it.
Finally, the cry “Lord, have mercy,” ultimately shows a faith in God. Because when the priest invites us to “let us pray”, the answer is not a collective “we’ve got this,” but rather “Lord, have mercy and either allow something or spare us from something.” This hymn shows that our faith is placed not in ourselves but in the Lord.
“Lord, have mercy” is found in virtually every service in the Orthodox Church. It is sung in a variety of ways that are easy to sing along with. We are encouraged to offer this response as often as we hear it, as a recognition of our relationship with the Lord, as a plea for His help, and as an affirmation of faith.
The hymn that ends this reflection is from the Lenten Service of the Great Compline. Whether it is sung or even said, it asks for God’s mercies, particularly in our times of distress. It can become a “go-to” hymn not only during Great Lent but in any time of sorrow, confusion or distress.
Lord of the Powers, be with us; for in times of distress, we have no other help but You. Lord, of the Powers, have mercy on us. (From the Great Compline)
Our offering of “Lord, have mercy” is a material part of every worship service and also an expression of faith. Be sure to sing it with conviction each time you hear it in worship, especially during Holy Week.