Why Do We Say "Lord Have Mercy" So Often?
The Word Magazine, December, 1983 Page 5-6
by Rick A. Michaels
Most people in the Church are troubled by all the repetition in the worship services of the Church. In a time when everything is quick, neat, and gratifying the ponderous length of our services, the heavy themes and images that tie the services together and make them to flow, like some eternal river moving through space as time moves, unaffected by human ambitions and beyond the coming and going of generations, irritate us. And so more often than not we endure them rather than enter them. We as much as decide that “one Lord Have Mercy is enough,” for “God hears us the first time.” We notice in the service books that line the pews in the church tedious instructions like, “Lord Have Mercy is to be repeated 40 times.” We look for the meaning of that instruction. Perhaps we think that such a thing must have been meant for those odd persons who are monks or nuns or something like that. But let us try to understand why the Church feels as she does about the “Lord Have mercy” for example.
One is hit by the fact that throughout the Bible God is always in intimate relations with man. God tells Moses that He is the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” a Person who is related to other persons. God is always speaking with, debating with, suffering with, rejoicing with, delivering, punishing, defending, feeding, and inspiring man. God is jealous, like a loving husband for his wife. God is a father who gives bread to his son when he asks for it. Isaiah calls God, “My beloved,” (Is. 5:1). The psalmist calls God the “God of my salvation,” (Ps. 18:46). God is the “mother bird,” (Ps. 91:4). Isaiah says: “Like birds hovering, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it:’ (Is. 31:5). God is called the rock, the shepherd, the shield and stronghold, the light, the strength, the refuge, the sun, the help, the shade, the portion, the song, the warrior, the potter, the fountain, the dew, the lion, the leopard, and the bear. All these names and characterizations point to the fact that God is all around man embracing, filling, consuming him with His presence. God loves man with a divine, a supernatural, an absorbing love which has no human correlate.
But we often do not experience that we are loved by God today. We do not often talk to God and, like Isaiah, say “my beloved” to God. The tragedy of our lives seems to be not that God has forgotten us but that we have forgotten God. And in this forgetting we do not feel our sin, we do not think that we hurt God by sinning. We surely lack a comprehension that we disappoint God. We do not feel the warm breath of God on our flesh, or hear the weeping of our souls and the gentle Holy Spirit’s weeping too. We do not see His countenance fall, the divine expression of loss, when we betray Him.
Only when one has forgotten God does religion become a something one goes to instead of a someone who belongs to, someone who loves you and frets about you. In our relations with each other we are conscious that we offend and hurt each other. And when we become sensitive to the fact that we have hurt someone we love we are apt to be seriously upset with ourselves. We are likely to be found before the feet of the person we have hurt, crying and asking forgiveness. And we are apt to be very emotional, very personal, very sober, and say over and over, “Please forgive me!” and “I am sorry.” We try to make up to the one we have hurt. We buy that person something he or she truly enjoys, something particularly symbolic of our love-relationship with that person. We turn our lives over to the task of mending the broken bond of love. We persist until we discern the hurt fade from the face of the person we love, until, in an embrace, we feel no tension, no apprehensive, fearful reluctance, until we feel, indeed, that wound we caused the loved one to have, the deep, spiritual wound, is healed. It is only at this point that we sigh a sigh of relief and go back to our normal lives.
We have been given wonderful gifts by God, our God. We have been given life, and the possibility of receiving fountains of living water, the fresh splash of joy and peace in fellowship with God. We have been given abilities, friends, all of the beautiful creation. We have been given divine sonship in God’s eternal Son, that even as He became one of us we might become one like Him, a God by grace, and sit down next to God in an everlasting life of blessings and bliss. But all this we have wasted. We have allowed ourselves to be swallowed up by the dark lakes of depression which flood us with feelings of sloth and bitterness. We have given our hearts to ponder the poison of self-love, of pride, and like spoiled fruit on the tree we sour away. We have failed to see the beauty and wonder God has surrounded us with. And so we have not been worthy of being made in the image and likeness of God. We have received the earth as a lush field, well watered and bearing a bounty that is ripe and sweet. We have received Eden, but we have made it a desert. We have been content with far less, with comfort and luxury, than God has been wanting to give us, a spiritual, boundless, endless rapture of luminous life and love, in fellowship with Him, in His very depths. We have given up a destiny of paradise, a paradise where the love of the Holy Trinity would be met by the priestly love of the adoring man, where the Creator and the creature would be as one, where all is in all.
If we should come to feel all this we would not be irritated by the “Lord Have Mercy” repeated so many times. We would find that tears would be washing our faces, the balm of the Holy Spirit, the baptism into His marvelous light, that gives our hearts wings so that our souls might fly with the Seraphim and exchange the kiss of peace with the Mother of God and with all His saints, in whom He is pleased to dwell. We would want only to please God, to see His joy at our coming, to hear Him call out our names in a tone of affection and friendship, to hear Him testify before the Father and in the court of the New Jerusalem where all the hosts of the righteous stand in victory at the foot of the throne of glory, that we belong to Him, that our lives were to Him as a sweet smelling fragrance. We would hate our sin.
The Church is intimately in Love with her Lord. She forever yearns to be worthy of His Love. She is forever amazed at His steadfast love. And so she says over and over again, “Lord Have Mercy?’ To the extent that we enter into this consciousness and truly experience the fact that God loves us, then we will understand that nothing we say, do, think, or desire will ever be enough, that no prayer, praise, or petition directed to God is ever enough for the God that is too much!
Rick is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and a member of St. Simon Church in Iron Mountain, Michigan.