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Holy, Holy, Holy

posted Oct 29, 2011, 8:02 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Mar 31, 2014, 7:39 PM ]

This acclamation, which is part of the Eucharistic Prayer itself, (the prayer of consecration of the bread and wine), is the only time in the Mass we are invited to not just sing and worship, but to join with the angels in this hymn of praise they sing unceasingly.

Its text is composed of two sections, both inspired by scripture, and each ending with the phrase, “Hosanna in the highest.”  It’s a juxtaposition of two very different expressions of the Deity: the completely awe-inspiring God of Heaven, and the humble divinity of Jesus the Messiah.  The opening phrase is adapted from Isaiah 6:3, which describes the prophet’s vision of the throne of God surrounded by six-winged seraphim, which literally means “burning ones”.  These celestial beings are the caretakers of God’s throne, continuously encircling it while singing “holy, holy, holy”.  The text of the second part, or Benedictus (Latin for “Blessed”), is taken from Matthew 21:9, which describes the striking image of Jesus’ arriving on a donkey in the Holy City of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday amid the acclamations of people crying out for salvation.

The Sanctus has been part of the Mass since the first century.  In the year 789 in his Admonitio generalis, Charlemagne ordered it to be sung by both the clergy and the entire assembly of laity, though this had become standard practice as early as the fourth century.  Unfortunately, scholars have been unable to identify with certainty any ancient melodies of this chant.  The ringing of bells began in the Middle Ages.  Though it’s never officially been in the rubrics, it became customary to ring hand bells to signal the ringers in the bell tower to ring the great church bell to call the people in to witness the Elevation of the Blessed Sacrament. 

When we speak the Sanctus in English, many people incorrectly say: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, (pause) God of…”  Translated into Latin, this would be: Sancte, sancte, sancte Domine, Deus Sabaoth.  But that’s not the correct text, which actually is: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth.  The original Latin is in the nominative case, not the vocative; meaning it’s not a form of address. It’s a complete sentence, with a period at the end, and contains the implied verb “est” or “is”: Holy, holy, holy [is the] Lord, God of hosts.

Adoremus, a Catholic association that promotes authenticity in the liturgy points out that this text does not contain, even implicitly, a second-person pronoun or noun-phrase; nor is Sanctus an adjective. Yet that is just how we proclaim it in English, as if we were addressing our holy Lord. And while the Lord is holy indeed; dividing the phrase incorrectly isolates the word Dominus and alters the meaning of the original Latin text.  The word sanctus is uttered three times.   In Isaiah, this is a prefiguring of the Trinity, while in both Rev 4:8 and the Roman Missal, this three-fold “holy” is an explicit reference to the Trinity.   Yet too often in our English versions, connecting the word “Lord” to the third utterance diminishes the triple resonance of the word “Holy”, obscures the clarity of the Trinitarian reference, and weakens the totality of the following title, Lord, God of hosts.

So don’t just say or sing the words.   Correct your phrasing.  Composer Curtis Stephan has done it for you in his Mass of Renewal, as has Steven Warner in his Mass of Charity and Love, with the proper result of:

Holy, Holy, Holy, (slight pause and breath) Lord God of Hosts.