By Fr John Zuhlsdorf
The gifts of bread and wine to be transformed lie upon the altar. Incense hangs in the air. The congregation stands. The priest brings the Preface to its solemn conclusion. An ancient hymn begins which echoes the unceasing liturgy before the throne of God in heaven: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis. Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.
The Hebrew words are worthy of attention. Sabaoth looks like the word “Sabbath” (Hebrew: shabbat, “to cease, rest”), but it is actually from tsaba’, “that which goes forth, an army, war, a host”. Sabaoth or Tzevaot (in some transliterations) is used by Jews – and by Catholics during Holy Mass – as one of God’s seven sacred names or titles: Lord of Hosts, earthly (cf 1 Samuel 17:45, Exodus 6:26) and especially heavenly.
The sacred action of Holy Mass transcends the bounds of earth. Every Mass is wreathed about by a host of innumerable angels.
The first section of the Sanctus is inspired by Isaiah 6, the prophet’s vision of the throne of God. We can look at an extended passage 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.’” The image of the fourwinged seraph (plural seraphim or “burning ones”, mightiest of the angelic hierarchy) coming to the prophet with the fiery coal (Greek: anthrax), was used in a prayer by the priest or deacon before the Gospel at every Mass for 1,000 years. It remains, of course, in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. In the Eastern tradition anthrax is the term for the consecrated Host. Communion is to fill you with the blaze of God’s transforming glory.
Full, active, interior participation at Holy Mass is fraught with peril.
The Sanctus acknowledges the presence of the greatest of created beings, the holy angels. Before the heavenly throne they sing: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (cf Revelation 4). As pure spiritual persons, unfettered by the limitations of matter, angels worship in God’s presence and simultaneously gather about the priest and congregation in our churches and bow before our altars. In the Extraordinary Form the bishop or priest bows during the Sanctus.
The second part of the Sanctus is called the Benedictus. In polyphonic musical settings the Sanctus and Benedictus are often distinct in style. In the Extraordinary Form the choir begins to sing the Sanctus when the priest concludes the Preface and then continues to sing while he recites the Canon. The choir resumes with the Benedictus after the twofold consecration.
The Benedictus is inspired by the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday before his Passion and death. “The crowds that went before Him and that followed Him shouted: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” (cf Mt 21).
The Hebrew hosanna is essentially “help” or “save, I pray”. Depending on the context, hosanna is for Jews an appeal raised to God begging for intervention and mercy or it can also be a shout of praise. For Christians, hosanna is an affirmation that Jesus is our Messiah and Lord, but it retains is force as a cry for our salvation. Hosanna is simultaneously a shout of praise and a plea for help. In the Extraordinary Form, at the Benedictus, the priest stands straight again and crosses himself.
That is plenty to absorb for now. We will continue our look at the Sanctus next week.