Foundations: Heaven on Earth Together

By William M. Cwirla

In the liturgy of the Lord's Supper, the Preface prayer concludes with the words, "Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Your glorious Name, evermore praising You and saying. . ." This leads directly into the Sanctus (meaning holy), the three-fold "Holy, Holy, Holy" song of the seraphim in their endless antiphonal praise to the Triune God.

The prophet Isaiah heard this angelic hymn in the year King Uzziah died when he saw the Lord enthroned in heaven. Around the throne were mysterious seraphim ("fire angels"), each with three pairs of wings, continually singing, "Holy, holy, holy is YHWH Sabaoth. The whole earth is full of His glory" (Isaiah 6:5). John heard the same hymn in his vision on the island of Patmos when the seraphim appeared as four "living ones" with faces of the lion, the ox, the eagle, and man, representing all creatures of the earth before the throne of God and singing, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come" (Revelation 4:8).

 Martin Luther wrote a paraphrase of this hymn for his German Mass in 1526. We know it as "Isaiah, Mighty Seer In Days of Old":

Isaiah, mighty seer in days of old,
The Lord of all in spirit did behold
High on a lofty throne, sin splendor bright,
With robes that filled the temple courts with light.
Above the throne were flaming seraphim;
Six wings had they, these messengers of Him.
With two they veiled their faces as was right.
With two they humbly hid their feet from sight,
And with the other two aloft they soared;
One to the other called and praised the Lord:
"Holy is God, the Lord of Sabaoth!
Holy is God, the Lord of Sabaoth!
Holy is God, the Lord of Sabaoth!
His glory fills the heavens and the earth!"
The beams and lintels trembled at the cry,
And clouds of smoke enwrapped the throne on high.
(
Lutheran Service Book 960)

We join our voices in this heavenly hymn when we sing the Sanctus of the liturgy. Heaven and earth come together in praise to the Triune God as the reigning Lamb who was slain, yet lives, and is present with His Church on earth to give His people the fruits of His sacrifice: His Body and His Blood.

Suddenly, the scene shifts, as do the words, from Sanctus to Benedictus. No longer are we in heaven but now we are standing on the main road leading into Jerusalem, waving palm branches in the air and throwing our coats on the ground as we sing, "Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" As the disciples once welcomed Jesus as the Davidic king who was riding atop a borrowed donkey, so we now greet the same triumphant King as He comes to us, riding the humble forms of borrowed bread and wine.

Hosanna means "Save us now!" It comes from Psalm 118, the victory song of the Davidic king who has conquered his enemies. Jesus has saved us, though probably not in the way the disciples imagined when they first shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David." They were likely expecting Jesus to start a revolution and bring the kingdom of God to earth by force. Instead, Jesus rode into Jerusalem to bring the kingdom of God by dying and rising.

There is a sublime genius to the Sanctus of the liturgy. It not only confesses the unity of heaven and earth in Christ, but it also gives us both a heavenly and earthly perspective of Jesus' kingly reign. From above, it is thunderous and awesome: Holy! Holy! Holy! Enough to rattle the support beams of the temple in which Isaiah was standing. From below, it is humble and lowly, a beggar King riding a borrowed donkey on the way to a cruel death to save His people.

Imagine those four "living ones" of the Revelation thundering, "Holy, Holy, Holy," and the streets of Jerusalem crackling to the shouts of "Hosanna in the highest!" the next time you sing the Sanctus. It's all about to happen right there for you, in your congregation. You may be in a great cathedral or a tiny country church. The altar may be adorned with beautiful fabrics and much fine gold, or it may be nothing more than a humbly decorated table or the hood of a Jeep in the middle of a battlefield. Great things are about to take place. The King is coming to you to give you His Body and Blood, and all creation rejoices together with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. Greet the King with your "Hosannas!" And sing your "Holy, holy, holy" to the thrice-holy God with the angels.

The Sanctus is a beautiful reminder to us that when we are gathered to hear the Word and receive the Sacrament, the kingdom of heaven comes among us, and heaven and earth embrace in the eternal dance of salvation.

Learn the Sanctus well, beloved child of God; you will be singing it for all eternity.

Rev. William M. Cwirla  is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California, as well as president emeritus of Higher Things.

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