By Joshua Ford
Throughout our worship services, we encounter many exclamations uttered by the laity. “Kyrie elëison,” “Alleluia,” “Hosanna in the highest,” “Hear our prayer,” “Thanks be to God,” and the all-important “Amen” are peppered throughout the liturgical practices of the Church across time. But what do they mean? What function or role do they play in the past and in the modern day? What relevance do they have for us as 21st-century Minnesotans when we gather in prayer and worship?
Many of these utterances are translated into our language and are self-explanatory. Others are left in their original language, whether Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. In the earliest days of the Church some Christians prescribed the practice of translating the liturgy and Scripture into only Hebrew, Latin, and Greek due to the sign Pilate had placed upon our Lord’s cross. Thankfully, such practice was condemned nearly immediately as the “Heresy of the Three Languages.” Though rare today, one can find modern instances where the practice is to leave the entire liturgy in a foreign language, in the name of “preserving the mystery.” Regardless, the Church understood early on that the worship of Almighty God does not belong to the “experts,” “specialists,” or the clergy. The word liturgy itself comes from the Greek biblical word “leitourgia” – work that is done on behalf of and by the people (litos – people, ergos – work or service). Consequently, there are many churches whose guidelines for worship require that the celebrant and at least two other lay people are present.
Some liturgical exclamations have been left untranslated. “Kyrie elëison” (“Lord, have mercy”) for example, began in Greek when the liturgy was celebrated by Christians in the eastern Mediterranean, as Greek was the common language of the day. As the Gospel moved from the Near East to Rome, where fewer people understood Greek, the liturgy was translated into Latin. However, even in Rome the “kyrie” remained untranslated. “Alleluia” (“God be praised”), “Hosanna” (“O Save, now”), and Amen (“May it be so”) both come to us from Hebrew. Why not translate them?
The simplest reason is that the Church understands that the Gospel is not bound to any era, language, or location. The liturgy transcends time, for in it we remember all that has come to pass for us – the cross, the tomb, the resurrection, the ascension, and the second and glorious coming. Untranslated exclamations of the liturgy serve as mile markers in the Way, pointing us to the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12.1) who died in the hope of the resurrection and justice that comes from Christ. The liturgy, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, gives voice to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors in the faith. It is the democracy of the dead, for in it, we join our voices with theirs in the praise and worship of our God.
In the season of Advent, we’ll have many opportunities to join our voices with the saints in their own words. May all of us do so with full-throated joy as together with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we proclaim the glory of the Incarnate Word–Jesus Christ–who became flesh and dwelt among us.