After Martin Luther had just died, a piece of paper was found in his pocket. On it were scribbled the words, “We are beggars, that’s the truth”. The fact that we are utter beggars before God is expressed in our liturgy every week with the words, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy”. This is nothing else but a beggars cry for mercy, help, assistance, pity and charity.
The words recall many of the New Testament accounts of people crying to Jesus for mercy, either for themselves or for others. For example, we think of the Canaanite woman whose daughter suffered from demon possession (Matt 15:22), the ten lepers (Luke 17:13), or the two blind men (Matt 9:27). In every case, these desperate people appealed to Jesus for help by crying out, “Lord, have mercy!”
In the same way, the “Lord, have mercy” in our liturgy is a wide ranging prayer for mercy and help in any possible situation or need. In these words we are holding out our begging bowls before God – and not only for ourselves, but also for the needs of others and the world. While in times past it has been regarded as a prayer for forgiveness, that is not really its function here. After all, we have only just confessed our sins and received forgiveness in the absolution! Rather, we are exercising our role as the priesthood of believers, representing the world in all its poverty to God; in praying “Lord, have mercy” we are acting as public servants for all who are deprived in any way – materially, socially or spiritually.
For this reason it is repeated several times, so that we can place our needs within it, and so that it’s not over before we even begin. The pastor may hold his arms out with hands upturned, visibly depicting our beggar status. In the Alternative Form, the “Lord, have mercy” is accompanied by actual petitions, as we shall note at another time.
Question: Who do you know that needs God’s mercy today?
A series of studies on the Liturgy – Linards Jansons