E DISCUSS the Propers of the Mass often on these pages. Today’s first reading in the Ordinary Form, though, draws our special attention to part of the ordinary of the Mass: the Sanctus.
The reading is from Isaiah, chapter 6, wherein we read about Isaiah’s call to become a prophet. The story is recounted in terms of a vision that Isaiah experiences, which places God upon “a high and lofty throne.” In the midst of this sight, the Seraphim begin crying out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts!” This vision from the 8th century before Christ has been part of Jewish and Catholic worship ever since.
The grammar of this sentence is important, and it is one of the 2011 Roman Missal’s numerous improvements over the former Sacramentary. The Roman Missal gives this for the text of the Sanctus:
Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts.
Formerly, the Sacramentary had given the text as follows:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.
Leaving aside the imprecision of the translation, “God of power and might,” the more important correction in this text concerns the comma. Take note that there is no comma between “Lord” and “God of hosts.” This is not by accident. The Hebrew original is: Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tz’vaot. While the Hebrew language does not include punctuation such as commas, it is clear from context that the words Adonai Tz’vaot constitute a single title for God.
The comma between “Lord” and “God” in the Sacramentary, therefore, changes the sense of what is being prayed in the Hebrew original. On the rendering of the Sacramentary, “holy” is reduced to a mere adjective, describing “Lord.”
In the new missal, however, “Lord God of hosts” is understood as a unit, a single appellation for the Mighty One. The word “holy,” then, can also be understood not just as an adjective, but also as a sort of proclamation of God’s intrinsic otherness. It is a statement that the Lord God of hosts is sacred, sacred, sacred.
This understanding is also reflected in the NABRE Scripture translation: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts.” The inclusion of the verb to be brings out more fully the proclamational nature of the triple “holy” and the sense of “LORD God of hosts” as a single unit.
Attention should be given to the grammar of this statement by any composer who sets out to write music for the Sanctus. The musical phrasing should treat “Holy, holy, holy” as a unit distinct from “Lord God of hosts.” The same attention should be paid by singers, who should take the grammar of this sentence into consideration for proper phrasing and breathing.
This was not done in many of the published Mass settings that were quickly (and often clumsily) reworked to fit the 2011 re-translation of the Missal. Music directors, therefore, should be careful to consider this point when evaluating which setting of the Sanctus to sing.