Jun 15, 2002

Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus

Online Edition

– Vol. VIII, No. 4: June 2002

Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus

by Hugh Ballantyne

In the English version of the Mass we regularly hear

Holy, holy, (pause)
holy Lord, (pause)
God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your

If we translated that from English into Latin, here is what the reconstructed text would be:

Sancte, sancte,
sancte Domine,
Deus etc.

Clearly the English translation is wrong. Is it trivially wrong? In fact, no, as we shall see.

Consider the original text in the Missale Romanum, with the sentences numbered:

(1) Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

(2) Pleni sunt caeli et terra
gloria tua.

Note that there is a full stop after Sabaoth. Not a comma. A full stop. Because it is the end of the sentence. Sentences 1 and 2 do not combine to form a grammatical structure like the following:

O happy, happy, happy Mozart,
heaven and earth are full of your music.

The first Latin sentence is a sentence. It is not a form of address; it is not a noun-phrase in the vocative case. It does not contain, even implicitly, a second-person pronoun; it does not name a person, to whom the second sentence is then uttered. In other words, the Latin text does not read, Sancte, sancte, sancte Domine Deus Sabaoth, in the vocative case with a comma at the end. And that is just how we have rendered it in English.

The constituent phrases of the actual first sentence are:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
and Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

Each phrase is in the nominative case, and they are connected by an implied verb est, or "is". The sentence means,

"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Sabaoth".

Alternatively, the sentence may be rendered as an exclamation:

"Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Sabaoth"!

The translator from Latin into English will often find that he must break up a long Latin sentence into two or more English sentences. That is normal. But to do the opposite, in the absence of good reason and in a way that distorts the original, is perverse.

Now what about Sabaoth? The Hebrew word tsebaoth is the plural of tsaba‘. It means "armies" or "hosts". The word was transliterated into Greek, and thence into liturgical Latin, as "Sabaoth". Thus both the Greek Bible and the Latin liturgy transliterate the word. The Latin Bible, on the other hand, translates it. Isaiah 6:3 in the Vulgate has Dominus exercituum, "Lord of hosts". Retaining the Hebrew word, "Sabaoth", both the Greek Bible and the Latin Liturgy impart a certain distance to the word. They could have translated; they chose not to. We can approximate this effect in English by rendering Sabaoth as "hosts". That word is common in many English translations of the Bible. Consider, for example, "a multitude of the heavenly host", in the narrative of the Nativity.1 The modern English-speaker, who may be unfamiliar with the term, can easily assimilate it.

The alternatives seem to be as follows:

i. "Lord God Sabaoth". The meaning of Sabaoth will require explanation. But the explanation is easy. And we already admit Hebrew words like Amen, Alleluia, Hosanna and Maranatha.

ii. "Lord God of armies (or multitudes)". This is accurate, if we decide not to leave Sabaoth in Hebrew. But we should then lose the sacred distance of "Lord God Sabaoth".

iii. "Lord God of hosts" seems to be a fair compromise.

"God of power and might" is not a translation. It is an ersatz text. It is not accurate, even as a paraphrase. The armies in question are not a metaphor. They are the angelic armies, the heavenly host. We may wish to demilitarize both Heaven and Sacred Scripture. And we may be too modern to believe in anything as fanciful as angels. But that does not entitle us to alter the text of the Missale Romanum and then claim that we have translated it. We correct the language of the Holy Ghost at our peril.

We come now to the problem of phrasing. This is the heart of the matter. When we recite the Sanctus in English, we habitually isolate the phrase "holy Lord (pause)". In fact there is no such phrase in the Latin text. Nor is there any such phrase in the scriptural sources of the Latin text.

Here is the right phrasing:

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus (phrase 1)
Dominus Deus Sabaoth (phrase 2).

Here is the wrong phrasing:

Sanctus, sanctus, (phrase 1)
sanctus Dominus (phrase 2)
Sabaoth (phrase 3).

The Lord is holy indeed! But the phrase "holy Lord" does not occur in the Sanctus. Nor does it occur in the scriptural substratum of the Sanctus. We have weakened a reference to the Bible. We have misrepresented the Missale Romanum. And we have obscured the Trinitarian import of the words.

Well, really, does it make any difference? As a matter of fact, yes. A small bad translation is still bad. And in a mistranslation of the Liturgy there are no venial sins. In the Liturgy all errors are grave and all sins are mortal.

Furthermore, if we let the devil win the lesser battles, we may one day discover that he has won a big battle. "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much".2 The English version of the Missale Romanum is full of false translations. The falsifications tend toward a "schism by mistranslation". They lead the flock astray, and they contribute to the fragmentation of our Church.

When a liturgical text makes a scriptural reference, as in the present case, then a translation of the liturgical text should preserve the reference. The wording, "power and might", deletes the underlying scriptural reference.

Compare Isaiah 6:3 in various biblical translations both new and old: the Lord of hosts (King James Version and Revised Standard Version); the Lord God of hosts (Douai-Rheims); Yahweh Sabaoth, (New Jerusalem Bible); the Lord of hosts (New American Bible). For good measure we may note the French Yahvé Sabaot, and the German Herr Zebaoth. In fact this phrase is not found only at Isaiah 6:3. The compound name YHWH-Sabaoth occurs a total of 279 times in the Hebrew scriptures. When we say, "God of power and might", we lose contact with the Bible. And we lose unity with Christians who may speak a language other than English. Thus, liturgical Babel. The words of the Sanctus derive from various passages of Scripture. The first two sentences refer to the doxology at Isaiah 6:3. "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; and the whole earth is full of His glory"3. The copula "is", absent in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, is supplied by the biblical translator.

Note that the possessive is "his" rather than "your". Only in the Missal, in contrast to the Bible, and only in the next sentence, "Heaven and earth are full of your glory", is there a grammatical change into second-person speech. In the New Testament we hear an allusion to those words of Isaiah:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus omnipotens, qui erat, et qui est, et qui venturus est.4 "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come"5!

That wording in the Book of Revelation may explain why the Latin Missal says Dominus Deus, "Lord God", instead of simply "Lord".

In the Hebrew text of Isaiah 6:3 we find YHWH-tsebaoth. The Septuagint renders this as Kyrios sabaoth, and the Vulgate as Dominus exercituum. The consonantal tetragammaton [YHWH] is spoken aloud as Adonai, "my Lord". The Greek Kyrios and Latin Dominus are the normal translations of it.6

The Book of Revelation here says pantocrator in Greek, or omnipotens in Latin, instead of sabaoth. So we have three different Latin versions of a single textual theme. At Isaiah 6:3 we find dominus exercituum, "Lord of hosts". At Rev 4:8 we find Dominus Deus omnipotens, "Lord God almighty". And in the Sanctus of the Missal we find Dominus Deus Sabaoth, "Lord God of hosts". In each case the Latin begins Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus… And in each case a good translation will be, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord".

The phrase "Lord God of hosts" cannot properly be split so that "Lord" goes with the preceding words, and "God" with the following words.7

Here then is the correct phrasing in English:

Holy, holy, holy, (phrase 1)
[is the] Lord God of hosts (phrase 2).

An examination of the musical text of the Sanctus in the Kyriale will sustain that argument. There are 18 regular versions and three versions ad libitum (acceptable alternatives). Dominus Deus Sabaoth forms a single musical phrase in 18 of the 21 cases. In Masses VI and XI and in the third Sanctus ad libitum, there is a quarter bar between Dominus and Deus. In the notation of Gregorian chant, however, a quarter bar should never be interpreted as a musical rest.

The word sanctus is uttered three times. In Isaiah this is a prefiguring of the Trinity. In the Book of Revelation, and also in the Sanctus of the Roman Missal, the three-fold "holy" is an explicit reference to the Trinity8.

In our spoken and sung English versions of the Sanctus, "Holy, holy…, holy Lord…", the triple resonance of the "Holy, Holy, Holy" is denied. And the clarity of the Trinitarian reference is lost.

Any corrections to the translation of the Sanctus must await the good pleasure of the bishops and the Holy See. Meanwhile, a plea to priests: This very day, tomorrow morning at the latest, correct the phrasing. You need change no words. You need not violate the norms of the conciliar declaration on the Liturgy9. Nor need you violate the corresponding prescription of canon law10. All you need do is delete an intrusive pause. Christian virtue consists in doing little things well for Jesus. Here is the correct result:

Holy, Holy, Holy, (pause)
Lord God of…

If the people at Mass stumble, gently override them. Teach them the right way. That is the charism of priests.



1 Luke 2:13, Revised Standard Version; Handel’s Messiah (King James Version).

2 Luke 16:10, KJV

3 Isaiah 6:3, RSV.

4 Rev 4:8, Vulgate

5 Ibid RSV

6 It is worth noting that until the 1960s we never uttered this sacred name in our Liturgy. The fact that we now sometimes do so is an offense to the pious ear and a breach of our own tradition. The practice is explicitly prohibited in section 41 of Liturgiam authenticam. A brief discussion of this problem may be found in the article "On Reading the Preface" by Josephine Dougherty in The Canadian Catholic Review, February 1990, p. 80.

7 Curiously, in the old Missal the German publisher Pustet placed a comma between the words Dominus and Deus. Descleé, the competing publisher, did not. However, Pustet’s comma makes no difference since the word Dominus is still not in the vocative case. We can either ignore Pustet’s comma, or else incorporate it by translating thus: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, the God of hosts".

8 Compare the Latin Te Deum and also the Trisagion of the Orthodox liturgy. The Trisagion can still be heard in the Latin rite on Good Friday.

9 Sacrosanctum Concilium III, 22:3

10 CIC 846:1


Hugh Ballantyne is a Canadian teacher and lawyer. He was educated by the Benedictines of Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island. He sings in the choir at Saint Michael’s Cathedral and Choir School in Toronto.



Hugh Ballantyne