I picked up this quoted passage in the comments on Fr. Stephen’s blog and thought it worth sharing:
Clarification from Fr. Thomas Hopko on the prayer, “Lord, have mercy,” from his book The Lenten Spring:
While it is true that all people have sinned and require the forgiveness of God, the prayer “Lord, have mercy” is hardly a simple plea for pardon and acquittal. It is much more than that. In its literal meaning, it is not even that at all. The very fact that the Church sings “Lord, have mercy” as a response to all of her prayers and petitions, including those for peace, health, and good weather, as well as those of praise and thanksgiving, should demonstrate this quite clearly. The fact that the Church continues to sing, “Lord, have mercy” on the most joyous and gracious occasions, like after Holy Communion and on Easter night, should also tell us something about this prayer.
It is the word “mercy” that leads to a wrong understanding of the Kyrie eleison. We tend today to think of mercy almost exclusively in terms of justice. The opposite of being justly judged and therefore condemned, is to receive mercy. So the “Lord, have mercy” gets interpreted as “Lord, grant us pardon!” Or, “Lord, let us off!” In the scriptures and tradition, however, mercy is not primarily the antonym of justice. It is rather a word for goodness, kindness, generosity and love. St. John the Merciful, for example, was not a just judge who showed mercy on criminals. He was a bishop who distinguished himself as a helper and servant of the poor, the lowly, the needy and the afflicted. The same man is sometimes called St. John the Almsgiver.
The word “mercy” in the English translation of Kyrie eleison is from the Greek word eleos, which is most often, it is true, translated as mercy. This word, however, comes from the Hebrew word hesed which may be translated into English in many different ways. Some Bibles say mercy. Others say steadfast love. Still others say tenderness or loving-kindness, or simply love. The word also bears the connotation of graciousness, generosity, bounty and compassion. In the prayer itself, of course, the original word is a verb and not a noun. So it may as well be translated as “Lord, be merciful, gracious, kind, generous, compassionate, bountiful, loving.” According to His self-revelation, God is all of these things, whether we pray to Him or not. So when we pray, “Lord, have mercy,” we are simply saying to God: Lord, be to us as You are! Lord, act toward us as You do! Lord, we want You to be with us and to do with us as You Yourself are and actually do!