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THE LITURGY OF THE EUCHARIST: The Eucharistic Prayer (3)
Author‘s Note: Due to a technical error today’s post should have been published before the blog posts on Eucharistic Prayer III. It concludes my reflections on the Eucharistic prayers in general. I apologize for the confusion. Next week we’ll return to Eucharistic Prayer III.
The Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts…”)
The Preface begins with a dialogue between the bishop or priest celebrating the Mass and the people celebrating it with him. Through this dialogue the faithful participating are drawn into the celebrant’s prayer addressed to God. In this moment, as the bishop or priest reminds us why it is right and just to give the Lord thanks and praise, we are suspended in our hearts, our prayer, and our intentions between earth and Heaven. We are drawn into the celebrant’s prayer, and with him we are drawn into the heavenly liturgy. This glorious reality if given expression by praying or singing the Sanctus.
The Church, on earth and Heaven, celebrates one liturgy. The communion of saints on earth and Heaven offer thanksgiving to God the Father, through Son, and in the Holy Spirit unceasingly through the celebration of the Eucharist. The Sanctus we pray to conclude the Preface draws from a long history of acknowledging the unity of worship on Heaven and earth. It’s wording is inspired by the vision of Isaiah:
In the year that King Uzziah died 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” (Isaiah 6:1-3).
This was incorporated into Jewish synagogue worship as early as the second century A.D. It was preceded by an introduction in which choirs of angels were called upon to join the praise given to the Lord. Since it is from the second century A.D. it is possible that this practice then made it into Christian worship through Jewish-Christian circles. Even though it was not in all the initial recorded Christian liturgies it is probable that it goes back to the period of the apostles themselves.
Regardless, it would not have just been a “copy and paste” from Jewish practice: the Sanctus as we pray it soon had the praises given to the Lord on Palm Sunday added, the second part of the prayer sometimes called the Benedictus (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…”):
And 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!” And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:9–11).
The “Holy, Holy, Holy…” at the beginning of the Sanctus also echoes the worship John narrates in the book of Revelation (Revelation 5:13):
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!”
It’s no coincidence that right before the Sanctus the bishop or priest reminds and invites all the faithful participating that we are joining choirs of angels in singing the prayer that follows. The Sanctus is actually the oldest Christian hymn meant to be sung by everyone present. Therefore it is apt that it is sung by us not only here on earth, but by choirs of angels and saints in Heaven as well. Now’s the moment to keep our voices and hearts suspended between earth and Heaven, from where boundless blessings are about to be poured out on us and on the altar.