holy cross sermon for the nineteenth sunday after pentecost, year a, october 19, 2014

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our sermon series on the mass, having spoken last week about the preface, we come this week to the Sanctus and Benedictus.

Last week I mentioned that it is the mass itself – rightly understood as a memorial, a recapitulation, a re-presentation of the events of Calvary – that saves us, that joins us to heaven, and that therefore the preface invariably concludes with this idea of our being joined to heaven through the “doing of this” in obedience to Jesus’ command:

“Therefore, with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying…”

And we have arrived at the Sanctus and Benedictus:

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts:
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.
Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High.

Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Firstly, and rather simply, as to the name of this element of the mass, as with most of the others, the word “Sanctus” is Latin for “holy,” and likewise the word “Benedictus is Latin for the word “blessed” – the first words of the two respective parts of this element. And it has been a part of Christian worship for as long as anyone knows. It is mentioned by Clement of Rome, one of the earliest Christian writers outside of the New Testament itself, around the turn of the first century. And much has been made already of the Trinitarian significance of the thrice repeated “holy, holy, holy.” As the Athanasian Creed puts it: The Father is holy, the Son is holy, and the Holy Ghost is holy: Holy, Holy, Holy.

As an act of praise, which is essentially what the Sanctus is, mass books direct the priest and other ministers to bow down while the Sanctus is being sung – and this bow is appropriate for the congregation too. Indeed one can hardly imagine a more appropriate thing to do as one announces the superlative holiness of our God. Just so, the books direct that the sign of the cross be made at the words “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” I have spoken before about my annoyance at the unauthorized change that one not infrequently encounters these days, prompted by concerns about gender inclusivity, of saying instead of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” “Blessed is THE ONE who comes in the name of the Lord.”

But this change entirely misses the point. It implies that we are the ones who come in the name of the Lord, and it misunderstands the point of the sign of the cross, making it an act of blessing on our ourselves (which, in a sense, it is), because of our so coming. But the text is unequivocally a reference to Jesus. Jesus is “he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and the text of the Benedictus is a quotation from the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel, where this is what the crowds cry out as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the foal of an ass, and the people spread their garments and branches of palm along the road. Blessed, in other words, is the heir of David, the King of Israel, who comes to rule his people in the name of the Lord. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Whereas the Benedictus is a quotation from John’s Gospel, as to the origin of the Sanctus, its oldest roots are in the vision God’s throne from the prophet Isaiah. In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet writes:

“In the year that King Uzzi’ah 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 6.1ff)

Again, the implication when we sing the Sanctus, is that the gap separating earth and heaven is now closed, and we join the Seraphim, the highest order of angelic spirits, those that dwell closest to the glory of God, and we sing their song.

But notice that there is a difference between the ancient text of the Sanctus as it stands in the order of mass, and what we find in the more ancient writings of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah says, “the whole earth is full of his glory,” whereas the Sanctus in the mass says that not just the whole earth, but, “HEAVEN and earth” are full of his glory. Fr. Jungmann makes much of this difference, and says that it points to the universalization of God’s saving plan in virtue of the incarnation and cross of Jesus, a fulfillment of Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well, when he said:

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.” (John 4.21ff)

Fr. Jungmann says, “No longer is it the Temple at Jerusalem that resounds with the triple Sanctus, nor is it only the seraphim who cry out one to another; heaven has become the scene, and all the choirs of heavenly spirits… are united in the singing,” (Vol. 2, 135).

Echoing what NT Wright, sometime bishop of Durham, has said about Jesus’ own imprecations of the Pharisees, who had turned the cultus of Israel into something exclusionary, something that reinforced the divisions between Jews and Gentiles, rather than an invitation addressed to the whole world, to join in the true worship of the true God – Fr. Jungmann says,

“The enlargement of the picture corresponds to the breakdown of the national narrowness of Judaism and of its cult which was conjoined to the Temple. ‘The glory of the Lord’ which had once dwelt in the Temple, had, in a manner new and unparalleled, pitched its tent on earth in the Incarnation of the Son of God. Now, however, no longer to be confined by the boundaries of one country, but to be a light to enlighten all people and – more completely after the Ascension – to be the Head beneath which earth and heaven should be conjoined.” (Vol. 2, 135)

Hence, perhaps the most fundamental message of the Sanctus is as a harbinger of the reconciliation that God accomplishes through the incarnation and cross of Jesus. All the people of God – Jews and Gentiles, red and yellow, black and white, from every corner of earth, all together join, with all the animals and plants and minerals too, together with dark matter and photons, and with all the unseen beings of the heavenly regions, all together have been offered an abiding unity in the person of Jesus, “who cometh in the name of the Lord.” It is our communion together with and in him that is the impetus for our song:

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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