The Italians have a rather cryptic proverb: “Traduttore, traditore” – which in English means: “Translator, traitor”. What our Mediterranean brethren mean by this proverb is: when translating, something of the original meaning is always lost. The translator always bears a certain amount of “guilt” for “betraying” the original and losing something of its power to communicate the idea in a language familiar to the receiving audience.
Now before this gets too boring and technical, an example: In John 21:15, Jesus asks Peter: “do you love me?”. The Greek word for love in this instance is agapas. While it is translated simply as “love” in English, the Greek captures a much more profound reality. The root of this word means “to have a preferential love”. For the believer, it means preferring to "live through Christ”, i.e., embracing God's will (choosing His choices) and obeying them through His power. It preeminently refers to what God prefers, as He "is love”. For the believer, agapao means actively doing what the Lord prefers, by His power and direction. True “loving” is always defined by God – it is a "discriminating affection which involves choice and selection", choosing what God prefers, not what we prefer. To be truly loving, in this sense, means letting Christ live His life – His love – through us, it is a preference for loving like God loves and as He would have us love. Talk about profound depths of meaning!
Something similar is going on when the priest uses Kyrie eleison rather than simply “Lord, have mercy” at Holy Mass. The word we translate as “mercy” in English actually has a much more profound meaning in Greek: “The word mercy in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil; a substance which was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word which is also translated as eleos and mercy is hesed, and means ‘steadfast love.’ The Greek words for ‘Lord, have mercy,’ are ‘Kyrie, eleison’ that is to say, ‘Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.’ Thus, mercy does not refer so much to justice or acquittal…but to the infinite loving-kindness of God, and his compassion for his suffering children!”
The Church discerned with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, over the course of centuries of prayer, to include this Greek phrase as a part of the Mass precisely because of the richness of its meaning. When we pray Kyrie eleison at Mass we understand that we are imploring the soothing, comforting, healing love of the Father for us poor sinners, His children who stand before Him with our wounds and scars, begging for the remedy of His love, which becomes the balm for our aching souls. These are beautiful depths of meaning, which we lose when we simply say “mercy” in English.
Our Catholic tradition is a beautiful thing, and when we plunge into it we find that it is not just a shallow hodge-podge of empty words and symbols, but a deep well of truth and grace that enriches us with the mysterious and life-giving joy of God’s steadfast love. May God bless you in the week ahead and may Mother Mary lead you more deeply into the Sacred and Merciful Heart of Jesus.