The Sanctus

Author: Father Edward McNamara


The Sanctus

ROME, 17 NOV. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. Q: When and why did the congregation's phrasing of the first line in the Sanctus in English change from "Holy, holy, holy / Lord God of power and might" to "Holy, holy, holy Lord / God of power and might"? Maybe this is a local practice but it seems the first one is closer to the Latin phrasing: "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus / Dominus Deus Sabaoth." — J.M., Ottawa

A: Actually I would say that the second one is closer to the Latin as the current Latin missal contains no separation between the third Sanctus and Dominus. To wit: "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth."

This punctuation choice will also be followed in the new English translation, which renders the text as: "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."

Many traditional Gregorian chant melodies reflect this practice by musically tying the third Sanctus to Dominus rather than treating all three independently. After the publication of the first translation, some popular English melodies took the opposite position and repeated a rousing triple rendition of "Holy, Holy, Holy!"

This early musical choice in English might have led to people in some localities reciting the three Holies in the manner described by our reader, but I am unaware of any official change in the punctuation of the English missal.

The Sanctus is directly inspired by Isaiah's vision of God's glory in Isaiah 6:3 (with an allusion to Daniel 7:10). Its use in Christian prayer is very ancient and might even have entered directly into Christianity from the practice of the synagogue. Its use by Christians is suggested in Pope St. Clement's (A.D. 88-97) letter to the Corinthians, although its introduction to the Mass is probably about two centuries later.

At the same time, the Christian version of the Sanctus shows some variations from the Latin biblical text and from that used in the synagogue. The Latin Bible translates Sabaoth with exercituum whereas the liturgical version leaves the word untranslated. God is the Lord of hosts, which refers to both the angelic choirs and the whole multitude of created beings. The liturgical text also adds the word "heaven" to earth. This is an important addition because it means that it is not just the temple of Jerusalem nor even only the cherubim and seraphim but the whole of creation that is united in singing God's glory. The liturgical text also transforms the cry into a personal address "Your glory," thus underscoring its character as a prayer.

Until around the 12th century the Sanctus was sung primarily by the people along with the priest. Later the development of more complex melodies and eventually polyphony converted it into the province of the choir. The Sanctus also became detached from its second part, or the Benedictus, insofar as the first part until Hosanna in excelsis was sung before the consecration. Silence was observed during the consecration after which the choir took up the Benedictus for most of the rest of the canon.

After singing the preface, the priest would recite the Sanctus in a low voice and with head bowed. Then he would stand erect as he begins the Benedictus, while making the sign of the cross. He then initiates the canon.

The rubrics for John XXIII's missal, now the extraordinary form, already permitted and even favored the people's chanting of the Sanctus-Benedictus as a single melody before the consecration. The most common practice was for the priest to quietly recite the text and begin the canon while the people sang. In this case, silence is observed after the consecration until the Our Father.

Thus, although the canon is recited in a low voice in the extraordinary form, it is frequently enveloped in a musical setting in which either the faithful or the choir do little more than continue the dominant note of the solemn prayer of the canon: prayer and thanksgiving.

In the ordinary form of the Roman rite the Holy Holy Holy, whether in Latin or the vernacular, is always sung or recited by priest and people together before continuing with the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer.

* * *

Follow-up: The Sanctus [12-3-2009]

In the wake of our comments on the Sanctus (see Nov. 17), a Polish reader asked: "You mentioned that 'After singing the preface, the priest would recite the Sanctus in a low voice and with head bowed. Then he would stand erect as he begins the Benedictus, while making the sign of the cross. He then initiates the canon.' What is the origin and history of the sign of the cross made while reciting (or singing), 'Benedictus qui venit ...' in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite?"

The recitation of the Sanctus with head bowed is quite ancient and is probably inspired by the concluding words of the preface, which invite all present to enter into an act of adoration.

There is no precise date for the introduction of the sign of the cross at the Benedictus. But the practice is mentioned as early as the 11th century in which an author mentions that the sign of the cross is made by the priest while he is still bowed; the priest straightens up only for the Te igitur at the beginning of the canon. A 12th-century author, John Beleth, mentions the sign of the cross and gives as a reason that the Benedictus is taken from the Gospel.

Analogous signs of the cross at this moment are also found in other liturgies such as the Egyptian, Armenian and Maronite.

According to the erudite 20th-century liturgist Joseph Jungmann, the basis for this sign of the cross during the Sanctus-Benedictus perhaps stems from the idea that the approaching glory of God signifies a blessing for the creature and a blessing that must transform the gifts upon the altar.

Another reader debated some of the finer points of Latin. She wrote: "Recently, you addressed a question about the phrasing of the English translation of the Sanctus in the Mass. In discussing how a Scriptural passage (Isaiah 6:3: 'Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory') has been adapted for liturgical use, you say, 'The liturgical text also transforms the cry into a personal address, Your glory, thus underscoring its character as a prayer.' I believe this is a little bit misleading; the Latin text of the Sanctus in the Novus Ordo is: Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus dominus deus sabaoth. This is a complete sentence, of which the subject is dominus deus sabaoth (nominative case) and the predicate adjective (repeated) is sanctus; as occurs frequently in ordinary Latin usage, the verb est is left unstated. A direct English translation would be: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts' (God referred to in the third person). It would be incorrect to translate this in the way that both the current and the newly approved English liturgical versions do, as if God were being addressed here — in that case, the text would say Domine (vocative case) not Dominus (nominative). Only in the second sentence of this acclamation is the Lord addressed directly, as evidenced by the use of the second person possessive pronoun, 'Heaven and earth are full of thy (your) glory.'

"I am disappointed that the new English translation of the Mass, which was intended to render more closely and faithfully the normative Latin text, has retained the error of translating the first sentence as if it were simply an introductory phrase of address rather than a (grammatically complete) assertive statement being proclaimed as fact by everything in heaven and on earth.

"In addition to your own very informative discussion of the Sanctus, readers might also be interested in a similar discussion published in the Adoremus Bulletin (June 2002), which can be found online here:"

I will leave the discussion of the correct English translation to the experts who made it. I am sure they had good theological and historical reasons for their choice.

I might have been incomplete on one point in my original article, however. I mentioned that the expression gloria tua (Your glory) underlined the personal aspect; here, I failed to mention that the change was with respect to the Latin Bible, which speaks of gloria eius (His glory). This change does in a way underline that the Sanctus, taken as a whole, is directed personally toward God and might help explain the translators' choice in rendering the first line as they do.

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