Some Protestants are offended by the number of times we Orthodox say “Lord have mercy” in the Divine Liturgy. If my count is correct, this is said 116 times every time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy. This doesn’t count all the movable bits — the various hymns sung at various feasts, saints days, and the like; it doesn’t count the Orthros, Matins, or the Hours chanted before each Liturgy, or the Post-Communion Prayers chanted after the Liturgy.
On his YouTube show “Have a Little Faith“, Zach Anner visits a Greek Orthodox Church and asks a Noah Johnson a question about prayer. Noah tells him: “In Orthodoxy there’s really only one prayer…it’s ‘Lord have mercy’ and we pray that prayer for everything and everyone in the whole world.” The more I think about this, the more profound this is.
What does it mean to pray “Lord have mercy?” This is an interesting question in itself. We should begin with the understanding that “Lord have mercy” was the cry of the beggar, the person in need who nonetheless had no claim upon anyone else. The beggar had no personal or familial ties to whomever was passing by; the best he or she could do was ask for mercy. The person giving alms was showing mercy upon the beggar. In one sense, this prayer illustrates our relationship with God. We have no claims upon God. God does not owe us anything. But God, in His mercy, provides us with existence, with being, and meets our physical and spiritual needs.
There are several examples of this type of prayer in the Gospel of Matthew. The first was the two blind men who followed after Jesus, crying out: “Thou Son of David, have mercy on us.” (Matt 8:27) The second example is the Canaanite woman who interceded with Jesus on behalf of her daughter: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David.” (Matt 15:22) And yet another example is of the man who interceded with Jesus on his son’s behalf: “Lord, have mercy on my son.” (Matt 17:15) In all these cases, Jesus was asked to heal someone. Yet no one dared demand healing, or imply that Jesus was obliged to heal them or anyone else. They simply asked for God’s mercy upon them and their loved ones. So, as we see, Lord have mercy is a prayer of intercession.
Lord have mercy has other connotations as well. The word mercy is the Greek word ελεεω (eleeo, el-eh-eh’-o). This is related to the Greek word for oil, ελαιον (elaion, el’-ah-yon). In the New Testament, there is a play on words here. Besides being used in cooking, oil was used to provide light, to heal the sick, to anoint someone, and as a means of cleansing the body.
When we pray “Lord have mercy”, we are asking God for enlightenment. With St. Basil the Great we pray: “Enlighten the eyes of my understanding; open my heart to receive your words; teach me your commandments and help me to do your will, confessing you from my heart, singing and praising your all-holy name: of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
When we pray “Lord have mercy”, we are asking God for healing. The Orthodox understanding of salvation is that sin is a sickness we must be healed from. In the words of the Psalmist, we are asking for the anointing of the Holy Spirit: “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps 51:2, 7, 10). Perhaps the best description of this is in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the Samaritan washes the injured man’s wounds, binding them with oil and wine. (Luk 10:33-34)
The idea of the “Lord have mercy” prayer having a connection to healing shares a natural affinity with its connection to repentance. In the pericope of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Publican dares not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beats his breast and prays: “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luk 18:13), which is one of the two prayers approved of by Jesus (the other being the Lord’s prayer). In like fashion, the psalmist opens the psalm of repentance with these words: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” (Ps 51:1) This idea is extended in the Troparia of Repentance.
TROPARIA OF REPENTANCE
Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, for laying aside all excuse, we sinners offer to you, our Master, this supplication: have mercy on us!
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
O LORD, have mercy on us, for in you have we put our trust. Do not be angry with us, nor remember our iniquities, but look down on us even now, since you are compassionate and deliver us from our enemies; for you are our God and we are your people; we are all the work of your hands and we call on your Name.
Now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
O blessed Theotokos, open the doors of compassion to us whose hope is in you, that we may not perish but be delivered from adversity through you who are the salvation of the Christian people.
LORD have mercy! (12x)
When we pray “Lord have mercy” 116 times in the Divine Liturgy, it has all these meanings. We repent of our sins, we ask for healing of soul and body, we pray that God would enlighten our hearts, and we intercede with God on other’s behalf. Some of these meanings receive a greater emphasis in specific parts of the service, but they are all present. Thus, as Noah Johnson says in his video interview with Zach Anner, all of our prayer can be summed up the short phrase: “Lord have mercy.”
 All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Church (2011-03-22). Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Kindle Locations 61-63). Saint Arseny Press. Kindle Edition.
 All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Church (2011-03-22). Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Kindle Locations 315-324). Saint Arseny Press. Kindle Edition.