WDTPRS: Sanctus

In the print version of WDTPRS, the weekly column, I have been comparing the lame-duck ICEL translation of the Ordinary of Holy Mass still hear in our churches with the new, approved version we will one day be able to use.

I have reached the Sanctus/Benedictus.

This is something of what I offered in the most recent column I sent in.

The sacred action of Holy Mass transcends the bounds of earth.  Every Mass is wreathed about by the heavenly hosts of innumerable angels. 

The first section of the Sanctus is inspired by Isaiah 6:3, which describes the Prophet’s vision of the throne of God.  It is worth seeing an extended passage of chapter 6 to get a sense of what our own attitude should be at this moment of Holy Mass:

In the year that King Uzziah died [+759 BC] I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple.  Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.  And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar.  And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” (Isaiah 6:1-7 RSV)

“But Father! But Father!”, some might be saying as they read this.  “You are certainly a romantic at heart.  Your are being overly dramatic to associate this passage with our attitude at Mass!”. 

Hardly!  Consider that the last part of this passage from Isaiah, the description of the mighty seraphim angel coming to the prophet with the burning coal, was used at every Mass for a thousand years.  Before the reading of the Gospel the priest would say the prayer called the Munda cor meum:

“Cleanse my heart and my lips, O Almighty God, Who cleansed the lips of the Prophet Isaiah with a burning coal.  In Your gracious mercy deign so to purify me that I may worthily proclaim Your holy Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. Lord, grant me your blessing. The Lord be in my heart and on my lips that I may worthily and fittingly proclaim His holy Gospel.”

This hymn/prayer both invokes the presence of the greatest of created beings, the holy angels and acknowledges their presence.  They bow before God.  They bow before and with the priest, alter Christus, as they minister at our altars in our churches.  Later during the Roman Canon the priest requests that the angels take our sacrifice to the altar in heaven.

The word Sabaoth looks a bit like the word “Sabbath”, but it is something quite different.  Sabaoth is from Hebrew tsaba’, “that which goes forth, an army, war, a host.”  Sabaoth or Tzevaot (in some transliterations) is used by the Jews – and by us during Holy Mass – as a title for YHWH, God.   We invoke the God of the heavenly hosts. 

The Hebrew word hosanna is essentially “help” or “save, I pray”.  Depending on the context it is an appeal which the Jews raised to God begging for intervention and mercy or it is a shout of praise.  For Christians, hosanna is a recognition that Jesus is the Messiah and Lord as well as a cry for our own salvation.  It is simultaneously a shout of praise and a cry for help.

Let us now compare the version of the Sanctus/Benedictus still in use at the time of this writing with the new translation.  I add emphases to highlight the changes.

Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest

Notice how the punctuation after “Lord” creates a separation from the rest of the actual title.  Also, the lame-duck ICEL version gives a different stress to “Sabaoth”.

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest

When during Holy Mass you say or sing the Sanctus, you place yourself in a line of worshiping disciples wending back into the very earliest years of our Church.  St. Clement of Rome (fl. A.D. 96) in his letter to the Corinthians mentions the liturgical singing of an early version the Sanctus:

“Let our glorying and our confidence be in Him; let us submit ourselves to His will; let us consider the whole multitude of His angels, how they stand by and serve His will.  For the scripture saith, Ten thousand times ten thousand stood beside Him, and thousands of thousands served Him; and they cried, Holy, holy, holy Lord of Sabaoth! all creation is full of His glory. And let us, being gathered together in harmony and a good conscience, cry earnestly, as it were with one mouth, unto Him, that we may become partakers of His great and glorious promises.” (34:5-7)

The great liturgical scholar Joseph Jungmann wrote in his monumental Mass of the Roman Rite:

[T]his hymn, derived from the prophet’s vision, so sparing in words, yet so powerful and weighty, fits best of all in the structure of the eucharistic prayer, especially in the setting mentioned.  All of God’s benefits and the manifestations of His favor, for which we must give thanks, are after all only revelations of His inmost being, which is all light and brilliance, inviolable and without stain, before which creation can only bow in deepest reverence – his holiness.  Wherefore the first phrase taught us by our Lord in his own prayer is: Santificetur nomen tuum.  That the cry resounds three times must have but increased the joy the Christians had in this song, for even when a Trinitarian meaning was not expressly attached to the triple “holy,” still there was inherent in it an echo of this most profound of Christian mysteries.

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  1. Supertradmum says:


    This meditation on the Sanctus is truly “awesome”. I am not a romantic, and I doubt if Isaiah and Ezechiel were either. I do believe that thousands of angels attend us at Mass, especially at the Consecration. We should be prostrate with humility and awe. How the concept of the sacred has been lost…

  2. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Three – I hope ancillary – things spring to mind:

    I understand that the ‘Sanctus/Benedictus’ is the oldest part of the ‘Ordinary’.

    There is an ancient typological tradition (I am not sure just how ancient) that sees the Coal as the Type of Our Lord and the Tongs, of the Theotokos (who is called “incomaparbly more glorious than the Seraphim” in the ‘Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom’).

    I have seen attention draw to the detail of “one called to another”, I think considered as never ceasing to wonder and delight to share the wonder.

  3. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Sorry: “incomparably”!

  4. Wish the new version had kept the Hebrew “Sabaoth” as the Latin does. We already have “amen” and “alleluia” — why not this part of our Jewish heritage too.

  5. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:


    God bless you, Father, for tackling this point. It is largely thanks to the raw data of your columns that I went from uneasiness with the lame duck to begging God to replace it.

    Here’s an odd question, though, which I hope you can treat. Since we already have Alleluia, Hosanna and Amen in the English translation, couldn’t we just have left Sabaoth untranslated? As a linguist, I know that there are some (nay, MANY) words which can’t be effectively translated: loss of meaning occurs, or business memo English results. Would there be anything wrong with using sung (polyphonic?) settings of the Sanctus which preserved “Sabaoth”?

    Chris Garton-Zavesky

  6. Semper Idem says:

    The Preface/Sanctus is my favorite part of Holy Mass.

    In both the EF, and the Ruthenian Liturgies that I attend, there are so many emotions that I feel when the Preface starts, and by the time it gets to “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus….” there are no words to describe how I feel. Fear, happiness, anticipation…they all work.

  7. AnAmericanMother says:

    Great setting of this (entire) text by David McKinley Williams:


    Sung by the ECUSA cathedral choir in Baltimore. Our ECUSA parish used to sing it, our parish choir here is more of a Renaissance/Baroque choir and this one is a barnburner.

  8. J Kusske says:

    In the English mass where I am in China the music director from Africa sometimes replaces the standard Sanctus with a song with the towrd “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was who is and is to come”–not a hint of the Benedictus either. When I pointed out to him that these words are not in accord with the Sanctus text he claimed that it’s actually equally faithful to the original sources. If and when the new approved translation is introduced here, I am praying that this kind of nonsense will go out with the ICEL version.

  9. Iconophilios says:

    Hagios, hagios, hagios Kyrios sabaoth
    If I am correct that is what is printed on the image of the Seraphim.

  10. Sandra_in_Severn says:

    So all these years when I did it the new (old) way I doing it correctly?
    Funny how all this “NEW” revision stuff was what I learned as a child and pretty much still said by rote. My First Communion “Parish Mass Book and Hymnal (St. Joseph Edition), published in 1966 by the Catholic Book publishing Co., NY with NIHIL OBSTAT John A. Goodwine J.C.D. And IMPRIMATUR Terence J. Cooke, V.G.

    I will admit that I am a bit put off by LTP’s versions for instructing the parish http://www.ltp.org/p-2190-understanding-the-revised-mass-texts-leaders-edition.aspx
    Lots of liberal bias apparent, very disturbing.

    But I have been carefully and prayerfully comparing my old Missal with the “new” revisions. I am neither questioning the wisdom, nor the timing, I’m still wondering why we were lead off the true path in the first place.

    When did the US Catholics “butcher” the Mass?

  11. germangreek says:

    Origen offered the interpretation of the latter part of Psalm 24(25 LXX) that it represents a challenge and response in Heaven between the angels accompanying Christ at His ascension and those guarding the gates of Heaven. Not recognizing the Son of God robed in flesh, He is challenged “Who is the king of glory”. First, He is the “LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.” Challenged again, He is “LORD of hosts, He is the King of Glory,” which convinces the heavenly hosts to open the gates. Given that, it seems that preferring to translate “sabaoth” as “power and might” instead of as “hosts” is a decision to back off somewhat in acknowledging the full extent of the glory due to Christ. I can’t decide which I prefer to believe; that the ICEL translators were ignorant of this understanding, or that they ignored it.

  12. catholicxjw says:

    Since becoming Catholic about 7 years ago (I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness) I am constantly amazed at how Biblical Catholic worship is and how Catholic worship really does bring the Bible to life. As a Jehovah’s Witness and then an Protestant, the Bible was simply a book that one read to get information out of it. Oftentimes I would think about how awesome it would be to have lived during the time of Jesus’ life on earth.

    But then the Lord gave me the gift of the Catholic Church and I realized that each and every time I participate in Mass, I am participating in the life of Christ and that I participate in the very same worship (I am not merely imitating their worship) that the early Christians along with the hosts of heaven participate in.

    So, I always try to remember that at the Sanctus during Mass that I am participating in the very same worship of God with the four living creatures surrounding the very throne of God as described in Revelation 4. This is really emphasized for me when we kneel during the Sanctus during the Extraordinary form of the Mass.

  13. Fr. Basil says:

    FWIW, the English version of the Melkite liturgy (as well as all Byzantine uses I can find, both Catholic and Orthodox), uses the Hebrew word “Sabaoth.”

  14. YadaYada says:

    Hosanna in the highest, from the Hebrew…

    Because Thou art in the highest [heavens], save us!

  15. Tom in NY says:

    cf. Is. 6:3 in LXX – the original of the immensely powerful image. Cf. also Rv. ch. 8.

    “Slavishly literal” could bring Sabaoth as “of the (heavenly) armies.” That aspect of meaning can be a teaching tool. We pray sabaoth in the EF. But unlike the LXX, Vg. has exercituum.

    I look forward to Rev. Moderator’s discussion of another time of kabod [Adonai], δοξα and gloria. It will be as edifying as the discussion above.
    Salutationes omnibus.

  16. Rouxfus says:

    I can’t remember where I learned this idea – it may have been Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper or perhaps Jeff Cavins’ The Great Adventure scripture study on The Gospel of Matthew, but we were encouraged to imagine during the Sanctus that the sanctuary in which the Sacrifice of the Mass was about to take place was filled with the Body of Christ – angels, saints, and all were singing along with us this song of triumphal entry of Jesus making his way into Jerusalem, riding on the ass with its colt, on the same day that according to the Hebrew ritual the unblemished lambs who had been raised to be sacrificed in the Passover feast, were being led from their pastures into Jerusalem bound for the Temple. In that event, the crowds with their palm fronds laid before him, singing the latter part of the Sanctus:

    And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way: and others cut boughs from the trees, and strewed them in the way: [9] And the multitudes that went before and that followed, cried, saying: “Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest.” [10] And when he was come into Jerusalem, the whole city was moved, saying: “Who is this?” [11] And the people said: “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth of Galilee.” [Matthew 21:8-11 DRBO: http://tinyurl.com/25twdlw ]

    We are encouraged to place ourselves spiritually and mystically in that scene during the Sanctus, singing along with the heavenly host in glorious expectation that our Savior has come in triumph, as the people of Jerusalem must have been joyously expecting. (How the tide of their emotion would turn a few days hence!) Imagine at that moment Jesus riding up the center aisle of the church to the altar of sacrifice where he will serve as High Priest and Victim (Abraham to Isaac: “God will supply the victim.”) And then, in persona Christi, the priest performs the sacrifice of the One Mass.

    Since I was given this understanding of what was really going on, the Sanctus, for me, has become of the most sublime moments of our holy liturgy. It is the nexus of so many different threads, and the point where I feel most in communion with the entire Church, the Body of Christ, militant, triumphant, and suffering.

  17. Mariana says:

    Thank you, Father!

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