This week, we are looking at the Sanctus, the other new Mass part we will begin singing as part of the new translation of the Roman Missal. Some of this material can be found on the USCCB website, http://old.usccb.org/romanmissal/, under “Sample Texts”.
The Sanctus, which in English means “holy”, is the Mass part sung right before we kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer. It begins with a triple “Holy, Holy, Holy” recalling Isaiah 6:1-4: “… I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!’ they cried one to the other. ‘All the earth is filled with his glory!’ At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke.” This first part of the Sanctus is the only part that the Church has translated differently. Before we sang, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of power and might”. Now we sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts” to match the current translation in Isaiah. The Latin word that was translated “power and might” and is now “hosts” is sabaoth which carries the connotation of a mighty and powerful king, and also the ruler of a vast multitude or army. We find this idea of a vast multitude or army in Luke 2:13-14 when the angels appear to the shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus: “And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”
Why does the Mass contain these references to a heavenly host or multitude of angels? In Revelation, the writer describes a vision he has of the heavenly court, using language very similar to Isaiah. He writes, “The four living creatures, each of them with six wings, were covered with eyes inside and out. Day and night they do not stop exclaiming: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.’” (Rev 4:8). This song tells us that at Mass, we are present before the very throne of God. We use the words of the angels because we are joining our weak voices with theirs to give worship to God. The Mass joins us to heaven itself, to the liturgy and worship in heaven that never ends.
The rest of the Sanctus, “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest” recalls Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (see Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:10, and Luke 19:38). We, too, are preparing for Jesus to come, to be made present on the altar at the words of the priest. He will descend from the realm of endless day to be with us once again. But we also remember that Good Friday followed Palm Sunday, and we will soon be made present at the sacrifice of the Lamb, a sacrifice that is ever present before the throne of the Father, making intercession for us at all times. “Then I saw standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders, a Lamb that seemed to have been slain… and they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.;’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: ‘To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.’ The four living creatures answered, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.” (Rev 5:6.12-14). As we sing the Sanctus, we can be confident that the angels themselves are adding to our worship of the living God, a God who has given us his very Son to draw us back to Himself.