It is part of the human experience that when we do something enough times it becomes second nature to us. When it’s a good pattern of behavior, we call it virtue. It’s it bad, we call it vice. Even things that seem complicated and difficult at first can become, over time, so much a part of us that we sometimes say we can “do it in our sleep.” For Catholics, the Mass is something so familiar to us that we can do it “in our sleep.” This is not a virtue, obviously, because it keeps us from fully participating in the Mass and benefitting from it in the way that we’re supposed to. Now and then, it’s good to consider the words we’ve said hundreds if not thousands of times at Mass. What do they mean? Where did they come from?
One part of the Mass that’s like this is the Sanctus, which is the Latin word meaning “Holy.” It takes place as a transition from the “offertory,” which is when the offerings of bread and wine are prepared on the altar, to the Eucharistic Prayer, which is the prayer that turns the bread and wine into the Eucharist. There are basically two sections to the Santus. It begins with: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” This phrase comes from the Book of Isaiah (6:2-3), where the prophet has a vision of God sitting on His throne in the Temple, surrounded by angelic beings called “seraphim,” who sing these words to each other in praise of God. We also hear the phrase “Holy, Holy, Holy” in the Book of Revelation (4:8), which describes the Throne of the Lord in the Heavenly Jerusalem, around which the angelic creatures give glory to God, singing that phrase without ceasing.
The first section ends with “Hosanna in the Highest,” which leads into the second part of the prayer, which is: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the Highest!” This phrase appears in St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphant entrance into the city of Jerusalem, which we commemorate on Palm Sunday, the celebration that leads us into Holy Week. The word “Hosanna” is from a Hebrew expression that literally refers to one who saves, but which over time developed into a common expression of praise. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” is a reference to Psalm 118, which is a Psalm of thanksgiving to God for His fidelity to His people. The Psalm was used by priests to bless pilgrims who had come to the Temple of Jerusalem to make their sacrificial offerings to God.
At this point, we should start to wake up to what is happening at this part of the Mass. The priest is at the altar, the gifts have been prepared, and the sacrifice is about to be made present. As pilgrims who have come to the sacred space, we begin to sing the perpetual hymn of the heavenly host, together with the people of Jerusalem 2000 years ago, and all of the faithful gathered together – past, present, future – who are preparing to welcome the arrival of the Savior. We fall to our knees, uniting the sacrificial offering of our hearts to the offering made by Christ Jesus through the priest, listening for the words of the Last Supper, and professing the mystery of faith that He who is the fulfillment of God’s promises to fallen humanity has come to us in the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of the Eucharist. And thus, when we enter into the liturgy with greater understanding, what seemed so routine is seen with fresh eyes and revealed to be amazing.