The “Sanctus”: A Catechetical Signpost for the Mass

Christ with the Host, by Paolo de San Leocadio (15th century).

The Eucharistic Liturgy is “the source and summit of the Christian life.”1 Active participation in these mysteries constitutes the “foremost and indispensible font” for acquiring the Christian Spirit.2 This full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy, so central to the existence of a Catholic, includes an intelligent participation. “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain.”3

Herein lies a challenging situation. How many Catholics have an adult understanding of the nature of the Mass? How many have received a distorted or lopsided vision of what liturgy is?  Given the centrality of the liturgy for the Christian life, we would expect that a distorted understanding of liturgy would bear negative fruit in the life of the Church.

One of the aims of the early 20th-century Liturgical Movement was to catechize the members of the Church as to the meaning of the liturgical actions so as to derive their full fruit. This task remains ours today, and I would suggest using the “Sanctus” as a roadmap for liturgical catechesis today, and as a corrective of some one-sided understandings of the liturgy.

Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. 

The opening lines of the “Sanctus” are derived from Isaiah 6:3, in which the Seraphim cry to one another the praises of God in the heavenly throne room of the Lord. The words are echoed in a slightly different form by the four living creatures in Revelation 4:8.  In both cases, the words take place in the context of the heavenly worship of God.

I think this is significant. At each liturgy, as we are about to enter into the Eucharistic Prayer, we hear the song of praise sung in the heavenly courts. The liturgy itself is signaling to us what is about to happen—we are about to enter into and participate in that heavenly liturgy. The Preface of the Mass, immediately before the “Sanctus,” often speaks even more explicitly of this participation. Consider the conclusion of the Preface from the first Sunday of Advent:

And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:

This participation in heavenly liturgy is a helpful corrective for an overly immanent view of the liturgy. Certainly we can point to tendencies in the post-conciliar Church toward a more anthropocentric liturgy. Consider the popular hymn, Anthem, as an example of this trend:

We are called, we are chosen.
We are Christ for one another.
We are promised to tomorrow,
while we are for him today.
We are sign, we are wonder.
We are sower, we are seed.
We are harvest, we are hunger.
We are question, we are creed.

That’s 13 uses of the pronoun “we” just in the chorus. The focus on the community is primary.  That’s a far cry from the angelic cry of the “Sanctus,” which is wholly focused on God. The same community-centered focus can be seen in church architecture, in which the community often now is seated to look at one another, rather than adopting a common posture, versus Deum.

This is the question of the vertical aspects of the liturgy versus the horizontal, or the immanent versus the transcendent. The problem with the overly horizontal, immanent vision of the liturgy, is that I can get that anywhere. If the parish and Sunday worship is all about building community, then the Church becomes one competitor among any number of social clubs a person could join.  The Church is, in this regard, not unique. Certainly the type of community one finds in the Church (or should we say “communion”?) is distinct, but only insofar as it is animated by precisely the transcendent elements of the Church!

No, what is unique about the liturgy is not its focus on the horizontal, the immanent, the community. What is unique, mysterious, attractive, is the movement of the community beyond itself into a participation in the heavenly. The prospect of participating in a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come appeals to the depths of our heart, and it does so in a way that the self-celebration which is characteristic of so much post-conciliar liturgy doesn’t.

It is precisely this heavenly, transcendent understanding of liturgy that the “Sanctus” offers us on the cusp of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is a signpost that alerts us to the fact that we are now entering the heavenly courts, approaching the throne of God, and of the Lamb. It awakens us to our participation, not in just our community worship, but in the wedding feast of the Lamb in the presence of all the angels and saints.

Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

This second part of the “Sanctus” is taken from Matthew 21:9. It is the scene of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Liturgically, we would recognize the scene as Palm Sunday, and it marks the beginning of the week of our Lord’s passion. If the first part of the “Sanctussignaled to us our entrance into heavenly worship, this part signals that in the Eucharist we are entering into Christ’s sacrifice.

I received by catechesis in Catholic schools in the late 80s and early 90s. It was not until I was in my early 20s that I remember ever hearing that the Mass was a sacrifice. My formation centered on the Mass as a communal meal. Altars were called tables. Priests were called celebrants or presiders. The main analogue used to describe and understand the Mass was the family meal.

Don’t get me wrong—the Eucharist can be understood through the lens of a meal, but not exclusively, or even primarily. As Pope Benedict said in his Spirit of the Liturgy,

…the Eucharist that Christians celebrate really cannot adequately be described by the term “meal.” True, the Lord established the new reality of Christian worship within the framework of a Jewish (Passover) meal, but it was precisely this new reality, not the meal, as such, that he commanded us to repeat.4

In the last eight years, in which I have worked full time in the areas of catechesis and evangelization, I have concluded that the sacrificial nature of the Mass is not understood by the vast majority of Catholics. I once asked a room full of 100 parents of first communicants how many could articulate that the Mass is a sacrifice. One hand went up. (I was elated to see that the one hand belonged to one of my RCIA candidates.) In teaching Catholic school teachers about sacraments in a Midwestern diocese, I found that about 5 percent could articulate the sacrificial nature of the Mass. I have never found a Catholic who knew that the word “host” comes from the Latin for victim.

If this Mass is merely a meal, then it makes sense that Mass attendance would drop. After all, what is so special about another meal, something we have many of in our mundane experience? In fact, we can only make sense of the Church’s teaching, that it is grave matter to absent one’s self from Sunday Eucharist if the Mass is more than just a meal. What is so gravely sinful about missing supper? But if one sees missing Mass as prioritizing something above the sacrifice of Calvary, then this makes sense. If the Mass is only a meal, why would a young man want to dedicate his life to priestly ministry to be the celebrant of a community meal? On the other hand, isn’t there more depth and weight to asking a man to commit to a vocation to re-present the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary for the salvation of souls? Perhaps it’s time we all made a concerted effort in the Church to refer to the Eucharistic Liturgy as the holy Sacrifice of the Mass again.

So the “Sanctus” at the verge of the Eucharistic Prayer reminds us: we are entering a heavenly reality, and we are entering the sacrifice of our Lord. Again, I think the “Sanctus” can be a good point of departure for catechesis on the Mass, and this is also so, because it is both a liturgical text, and a text drawn from the scriptures. I suggest that those two sources are the keys to remedying these deficient notions of liturgy.

First, we need to point out to Catholics the words they are using in the Mass. We’ve been familiar with some of them for decades: “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and the glory of his name …” Others are new to us since the new translation of the Roman Missal, words like “oblation,” and phrases such as “these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices,” and “this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim.” Catholics need to be put in touch with the liturgical texts, study them, engage them, have their meaning opened up to them, and let the liturgical texts speak for themselves about the reality of the liturgy.

Finally, Catholics need to be deep in Scripture, especially Scripture as a source for the liturgy.  Above all, Catholics need a better grasp of the Old Testament and its system of sacrifices and worship. Catholics need to be taught to read the Old Testament typologically, with an eye to the mysteries they celebrate. Perhaps the best resource for this kind of reading is the Lectionary. More often should priests and those entrusted with catechesis be drawing those typological connections between the first reading and the Gospel, and between the biblical texts and the liturgy, so that Catholics can develop a more vivid sense of the Old Testament background that has influenced our Catholic liturgy. One very good sign that this has occurred would be when Catholics could tell you that their singing “Holy, holy, holy” at Mass is a reminder from Isaiah that they are participating in the Supper of the Lamb.

  1. CCC 1324; Cf. Lumen Gentium 11.
  2. See Pope Pius X, Tra le Sollicitudini, November 22, 1903.
  3. Sacrosanctum Consilium 11, emphasis mine.
  4. Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 78.
Dr. Michael Brummond About Dr. Michael Brummond

Dr. Michael Brummond is assistant professor of systematic studies at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, WI. He holds an STD from the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary.


  1. Beautiful reflection!!!!!

  2. Avatar John Proffitt says:

    What a great article! I would love to see a copy of your dissertation when you have completed it!

  3. Avatar Deacon Joe Verdico says:

    A great article from a knowledgeable and spiritual man. I have had the honor of knowing him and tapping on his knowledge to help me in my diaconal ministry. Keep up the great work for the Church Mr. Brummond!

  4. Avatar Anna Moore says:

    Holy article by a holy guy! Great job Mike. Thank you Elizabeth Carlos for spreading the word on this article.