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February 1, 2018

Sanctus: Holy, Holy, Holy

Sanctus: Holy, Holy, Holy


The Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy") is the most important of all the people’s acclamations at Mass. It is meant to be a cheer, a joyful shout of thanks and praise to God. It comes at the end of the preface prayer, where the priest has been enumerating the reasons for praising and thanking God. It is almost as if the people can’t stand it another moment and need to get into the act of praising God. Even in a requiem or funeral Mass (think the Mozart or better the Verdi Requiem) this acclamation is to be one of power. No wimpy Holies allowed!

The Sanctus' two parts

The text of the Sanctus has two parts; in times gone by they were known by two names, the Sanctus (Holy) and the Benedictus (Blessed). They would be sung in two parts while the priest was praying the eucharistic prayer, the first half before the elevation of the host and chalice at the words of consecration, and the second after. Each part ends with "Hosanna in excelsis" (Hosanna in the highest).

The Hosanna

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” comes from Psalm 118 (117), verse 26. It is a psalm of victory, and was commonly known at the time. Jesus quotes it on more than one occasion with phrases like “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” as well as texts that became standard Christian prayers: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” And, of course, for Christians the one referred to in this psalm is Jesus, who comes in God’s name.

This is linked to the Hosanna text by the previous verse (Psalm 118 [117]:25), which begins with “save us,” in the Hebrew, hosia na, which Father Raymond Brown translated as “please save” and which he felt was the origin of the Hosanna that we know. By Jesus' time, it had become a cheer used on Jewish festivals such as Passover, “an expression of joy and praise for deliverance granted or anticipated.” So when we sing this part of the Sanctus it is to be a moment of praise and thanksgiving for salvation, which makes perfect sense as we enter into the eucharistic prayer, which is at the heart of the sacrament of our salvation.

The triplet of praise

Back to the first half of the Sanctus now, which begins with that triple praise of God: "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus" (Holy, Holy, Holy). This over-the-top praise is a powerful statement on its own. In fact, in many older churches you will find the triple Sanctus as part of the decoration of the church. I have seen it in elaborate calligraphy on church walls, and even on the three steps that led up to the old high altar in some churches. This triplet appears twice in the Scriptures, once in Isaiah 6, and once in the fourth chapter of the book of Revelation. Both times it refers to a vision of Heaven and the end times.

Then comes “Dominus Deus Sabaoth" (Lord God of Hosts), which is a bit tricky to understand; the Sabaoth in Latin is a word taken over from the Hebrew. It almost always has military overtones, Lord God of the armies, one could say. So this acclamation is an affirmation that God has almost royal power over the universe, over the hosts of stars and of all creation. Think in terms of Zadok the priest, Handel’s coronation anthem. If you haven’t heard it, take a listen, it has the kind of power that you would hope for in a Sanctus.

In practical terms “heaven and earth are full of your glory” could be seen as geographic descriptions: the heavens and this planet. Notice that in the Latin it is the fullness that comes first: “Pleni sunt cæli et terra gloria tua.” When we think about God’s will in the Lord’s prayer, the request is subjunctive: "may God’s will be done on earth as in heaven," but in the Sanctus the verb is indicative and complete: God’s glory fills the earth even now, and fills heaven now.

Practical implications

So what’s a music director to do? Well, certainly knowing the Latin form in Mass XVIII is useful. But again, everything we have said about the structure and energy that the Sanctus requires applies here: SANC-tu-us SANC-tu-us —it needs to be like waves crashing on the shore. Sometimes people think that using Latin during Lent is a way to make things more meditative, but that is not always the case, and is certainly not the case here.

Beyond that, when you are considering your parish repertoire of Mass settings, remember that it is important to try to use a consistent setting within one Mass for the eucharistic prayer. It is a single prayer, and so it should hang together musically. If possible, there should be a single Mass setting across all celebrations in a parish during a specific season, especially for Advent, Lent, Christmas and Easter. You might even consider using the same Mass setting for both Advent and Lent.

The number varies from place to place, but certainly anything more than five Mass settings in the course of one year at a parish is really asking too much of the people, who after all are to be the primary singers of these parts. And when evaluating a Mass for possible inclusion in your repertoire, many people find it best to start with the Holy, precisely because of its importance, and because it often sets the tone for the rest of the setting.

So with praise to God, this ends our reflection on the Sanctus. I sincerely hope it helps you in your Christian duty of praising God in all times and places.

Glenn CJ Byer
Glenn CJ Byer

Glenn CJ Byer has written widely on the liturgy, including articles on the meaning of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, marriage preparation, the renovation of churches and the anointing of the sick. He speaks widely on the role of lay ministers in the Mass.

This blog series is intended to provide a more in-depth look at the various sung parts of the Mass—their origin, history, current usage, etc. Explore more from this series:


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