Each Sunday we sing an ancient prayer that dates back to the earliest days of Christian worship; in fact, it dates back even further: back into Temple worship traditions that are hundreds of years older than Christianity itself. It is called the “Sanctus” (“Holy”) and the Benedictus (“Blessed”), and over the years this prayer has been translated in various different ways. At St. George’s I know you got used to a new translation when MJ was your priest, and perhaps it is a bit disorienting to be using a different translation again. The confusion about what words to sing is quite noticeable when we sing it together, so some folks have asked if I would clarify what we do at this time, and why I’ve made these choices in this way.
1) Masculine names for God The Sanctus in its traditional form gives a strong image of God as a man (“Holy holy holy, Lord”); however many in contemporary Anglicanism prefer to use only gender-neutral names and titles for God. This is entirely appropriate since God, being without form, is neither male nor female. You’ll recollect from Genesis 1:27 that God created humans “in God’s own image: male and female God created them” - this tells us two things: first, that God pre-exists the categories of “male” and “female”, and second that God’s own image includes (somehow) both male and female. Many feminine images for God exist (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34), just as many masculine images for God exist. As a result, we have space to choose how we talk about God: neutrally, as male, as female. MJ was specific in her choices and chose more neutral images of God in the Sanctus (“Holy One” and “God” instead of “Lord”). In the past, that has been my own preference too; yet I am increasingly drawn to honoring the traditions of the Church and finding space within them, so I make different choices than MJ did. It is not intended as a complaint or as a correction of a mistake, simply an expression of our freedom to make different choices.
2) Language about God’s Power The Sanctus in its traditional form includes a celebration of God’s power (“God of power and might”). However, some Anglicans feel that traditional ways of speaking about God’s power are misleading or unhelpful. Images of God’s power draw on images of human, earthly power: God is a King, a feudal Lord, an Emperor. Some make the very Biblical argument that Jesus Christ came to be a servant (Philippians 2:5-11), and a shepherd (John 10:1-21), and to die that others may have life (Matthew 20:17-19), not to take over power and dominion. Thus, some folks say that when we use earthly images of power, we give ourselves the wrong kind of image about what kind of power God has and what kind of power God prefers to exercise. Perhaps it is for reasons such as these that MJ chose to have you say, “God of love and light”. I am not un-persuaded by this theological conversation; in fact I think it is incredibly important to discuss what kind of power we think and expect God to exercise in our lives and in the world - but I think we can have this conversation also within the context of the tradition, and traditional language.
3) Is this about Jesus, or about us all? The Sanctus is full of images from Scripture — its very makeup shows us how we’ve dialogued with Scripture down through the ages. The lines, “hosanna in the highest” and “blessed is he/the one who comes in the name of the Lord” show us a very complex dialogue within Scripture itself. Both these lines are originally found in Psalm 118 (“hosanna”: “O save us!” in v. 25; “blessed is...” in v. 26); and these verses were used in Temple worship, to refer to the coming of the Messiah who would become a great military king and restore Israel to magnificent independence. Christians adopted these lines to apply to Christ (as on Palm Sunday, Mark 11:9-10 when these verses from Ps.118 were quoted as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the donkey), an adoption which has always of course been contested by Jewish authorities. But down through the ages, a major question has remained in the minds of many Christians and Jews alike: are these verses about a specific person (the Messiah: “blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”), or can they be about any person who lives a life in testimony to God’s purposes and vision (“blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”)? One possible reading of Psalm 118:25-26 is, “blessed is any person who comes in the name of the Lord!”. Now this line becomes an invitation, and a challenge to each one of us to continue in our lives of faith. I believe this is the reason why many Christians cross themselves during this line: asking for God’s blessing upon us as we hear and respond to this challenge. It is for this reason that I prefer to use this translation, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” in the Sanctus when we sing it on Sundays.
So, taking all these points into consideration, this is what we now sing on Sundays:
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest.