The Sanctus

ROME, NOV. 17, 2009 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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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.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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