The History of the Text of the Ordinary

The Kyrie is a petition sung directly after the Introit. It usually has a nine-fold structure, with each of the three lines being stated three times. The text, from the Greek, has been used in the Eucharist since the sixth century. The words, Kyrie eleison, are also used as a ubiquitous response to other liturgical items, especially those of the various litanies, or prayers of supplication.  Under the pontificate of Pope Gregory I (540-604) the Kyrie had a six-fold structure (Kyrie x 3, Christe x 3). It was under Pope Nicholas I in the ninth century (800-867) that the nine-fold structure became commonplace. At the Council of Orange in 529, the words of the Kyrie were also prescribed for use in Matins and Vespers (the first and seventh canonical hours, or services, of the monastic day).

The Gloria, or Greater Doxology, was a prose hymn of praise of the early Christian Church. It is first found in the Apostolic Constitution (c380) and its oldest translation is from the seventh century. Originally it was sung at Lauds, the second service of the monastic day, whilst in Rome it was used in the mass only when a bishop was the celebrant. The words begin with a quotation from the story of the nativity from St Luke’s gospel (2:14) and continue with a sequence of disparate acclamations of praise, invocations and petitions (the words of the Agnus Dei, which are contained within the text, were introduced by Pope Sergius I (687-701)), ending with a Trinitarian doxology. The text therefore falls into three sections: i. Praise for God; ii. Petition to Christ; iii. Acknowledgement of the Holy Trinity. A shorter version of the Gloria is used in the eastern Orthodox Church as a hymn at morning and evening prayer. The Gloria is usually dropped from the liturgical mass during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, being reinstated for the first masses of Christmas and Easter.

The Credo, an affirmation of fundamental belief in Christian doctrines, was the final addition to the Ordinary. Its inclusion can be traced back to sixth-century Spain, but it appears to have been unknown in Rome until 1014. The Latin text was adopted at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, hence its full name  –  the Nicene Creed

The Sanctus is an acclamation which follows the Sursam Corda and divides the Eucharistic preparation. It is the oldest part of the Ordinary, evolving between the third and the fifth centuries. It forms a conclusion to the first part of the Eucharistic rites and, in the early years, until around the year 800, was sung by priest and people alike. The text has its origins in Isaiah (6:3) in the context of celestial praises of cherubim and seraphim. In the same context the words of the Sanctus are also subsumed into the text of the Te Deum, the first of the canticles of praise sung at Matins. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the Sanctus is adapted in the Greek as a Trisagion – a thrice holy petition (Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal – have mercy upon us). As with the Kyrie, at the second Council of Orange in 529, the words of the Sanctus were also prescribed for use at Vespers. Liturgically the words of the Benedictus follow straight on from the Sanctus with no break.

The Agnus Dei was introduced into the mass by Pope Sergius I (whose pontificate was from 687-701).  Originally it was added as a con fractorium, or a chant to be repeated many times during the preparation of the bread and wine, antiphonally between priest and people. From the twelfth century it was permitted to be said only three times, with ‘dona nobis pacem’ as the final petition – this phrase having the same number of syllables as ‘miserere nobis’. The text itself is from John (1:29) and the specific association of the sacrificial lamb with Christ in the context of the Eucharist was a practice which began in Syria and spread to the wider Church. The direct address to Christ occurs only three times in the Ordinary: the middle of the Kyrie, the Christological (second) section of the Gloria and here, throughout the Agnus Dei.

Peter Parfitt