The Eucharist: The Sanctus, The Epiclesis and The Words of Institution and Consecration – Edward Sri

October 19, 2011

The Sanctus: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord”

“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

This prayer helps us to see with the eyes of the angels what is really happening in the Eucharistic liturgy. Right away, the opening words “Holy, holy, holy Lord…” take us spiritually up to heaven. They come from Isaiah 6:3, a passage in which the prophet receives a vision of the heavenly King in the divine throne room with his majesty magnificently displayed and his angelic court adoring him.

Isaiah reports that he saw “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple” (Is 6:1). Above the Lord, Isaiah saw the six-winged angelic seraphim, a word which means “burning ones.” This unique title suggests that these angels are so close to God that they reflect his radiance. Yet even these angelic beings stand in utter awe before the divine presence. They covered their faces, daring not to behold the full glory of God (Isaiah 6:2), and called to one another in an ecstatic hymn of praise:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of his glory.”
(Isaiah 6:3)

The three-fold repetition of the word “holy” here is the strongest form of the superlative in Hebrew. The seraphim, therefore, acclaim the Lord as the all-holy One, the one God above all other gods. And by singing “the whole earth is full of his glory,” they praise God for his splendor, which is displayed throughout creation (see Psalms 8:1; 19:1-6; 24:1-3).

This angelic hymn of praise has dramatic effects. When they sing, the foundations of the Temple shake and the room is filled with smoke. Isaiah understandably feels afraid. Recognizing his unworthiness to stand in the holy presence of God, he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips… for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).

Singing with the Angels
In the New Testament, St. John had a similar experience. He was caught up in the Spirit on the Lord’s day (Revelations 1:10) and had an ecstatic vision of the heavenly liturgy. John sees Jesus, the Son of Man, in radiant glory, and like Isaiah he responds in fear: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelations 1:17). Again, like Isaiah, John sees the six-winged angelic creatures before the throne of God who sing a similar hymn of praise: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Revelations 4:8). Reminiscent of Isaiah’s account of the seraphim praising God for his glory revealed in the cosmos, John reports how “the twenty-four elders” fall down before God’s throne praising him for his creation as they sing:

“Worthy art though, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for thou didst create all things,
and by thy will they existed and were created.” (Revelations 4:11)

With this background in mind, we can understand more clearly what it means for us to say at Mass: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of hosts…” We are joining our voices with the angels and saints in heaven in their jubilant hymn of praise. And how fitting it is to do so at this very moment in the Mass! In the Eucharistic liturgy, we become like Isaiah and St. John, caught up to the heavenly liturgy. [See CCC 1139]

We are mystically entering the heavenly throne room — the same one that Isaiah saw in his earth-shaking vision that filled the Temple with smoke as the angels sang. Both the prophet and the apostle felt unworthy to behold this awesome sign, and even the seraphim felt the need to cover their faces as they flew before the glory of God. Like them, we are preparing to encounter the King of Kings, the all-holy divine Lord, who will become present on the altar. No wonder we fall to our knees in reverence after singing this hymn.

In the second half of this prayer known as the Sanctus (Latin for “holy”), we repeat words which the crowds used to greet Jesus as He processed into Jerusalem: “Hosanna” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Both expressions were originally in Psalm 118, a pilgrimage hymn recited on the way to the Temple for major feasts. Hosanna is a transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning “Save us,” which became an expression of praise in liturgical worship. The blessing upon “he who comes in the name of the Lord” was normally invoked on the pilgrims coming to the Temple. On the day we know as Palm Sunday, the crowds used these words to welcome Jesus as the one coming in the Lord’s name — in other words, the one representing God and acting on his behalf.

It is fitting that we repeat these words at this moment in the Liturgy. Just as the crowds in Jerusalem welcomed Jesus into the holy city with these words from Psalm 118, so do we welcome Jesus into our churches, for he is about to become present in the Eucharist on our altars.

The Epiclesis
We saw earlier that in the ancient Jewish table prayers, the blessing over the cup included a supplication that God send the Messiah to Israel and restore the Davidic Kingdom. Quite naturally, the early Christians included in the Eucharistic prayer a similar supplication. In a prayer known as the epiclesis (meaning “invocation upon”), the priest prays that the Father send the Holy Spirit so that the gifts of bread and wine be changed into the body and blood of Our Lord.

Like the ancient Jews who pleaded with God to send the Messiah, the priest at Mass petitions that the Messiah-King be made present once again, this time under the appearances of bread and wine: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer II); or “Therefore, O Lord, we humbly implore you: by the same Spirit graciously make holy these gifts we have brought to you for consecration, that they may become the body and blood of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer III).

There is a second epiclesis after the words of institution that relates to the other petition made in the ancient Jewish prayers, that of the House of David being restored. Just as many Jews expected the Messiah to unite God’s people in a restored Davidic kingdom, so we confidently hope that the Messiah who comes to us in the Eucharist will unite us more deeply together in his Church. Hence, the priest calls on the Holy Spirit, praying that the Eucharist may draw all those who receive into a greater communion: “Grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer III; emphasis added). Similarly, in other Eucharistic Prayers, the priest petitions that after receiving the one Body of Christ in the Eucharist, “we may be gathered into one” (Eucharistic Prayer III) or “gathered into one body” (Eucharistic Prayer IV).

The Words of Institution and Consecration

“Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body,
Which will be given up for you…
Take this, all of you, and drink from it,
For this is the chalice of my blood,
The blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many
For the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”

For some Catholics, these words might be too familiar. Some of us have heard these words hundreds of times since our childhood repeated at every Mass. We might be tempted to take them for granted or consider them routine.

But what if we had never heard these words before? What if we were Peter, James, or one of the other apostles present at the Last Supper? What would these words have meant to us?

In order to understand the full meaning of these sacred words, it is important to hear them against the background of the Passover. The gospels that recount the institution narrative tell us that the Last Supper took place in the context of the Passover meal — the annual feast that celebrated the foundational night in Israel’s history when God liberated them from Egypt (Matthew 26:19; Mark 14:16; Luke 22:13). On that first Passover, God instructed the people to sacrifice an unblemished lamb, eat of the lamb, and mark their doorposts with the blood of the lamb. The families who participated in this ritual were spared when the firstborn sons in Egypt were struck down in the tenth plague. Year after year, subsequent Israelites re-told the story of that first Passover and re-enacted it, eating a sacrificial lamb once again.

Most significantly, the Israelites celebrated the annual Passover (see Ex 12:14) as a liturgical “memorial” (anamnesis in Greek). For the ancient Jews, this involved much more than remembering a past event. A memorial such as Passover was very different from modern holidays such as the Fourth of July, on which Americans simply call to mind the founding of their country. In a biblical “memorial,” the past was not merely recalled; it was re-lived. The past event was mystically made present to those celebrating the feast. This is why Jews in Jesus’ day believed that when they celebrated this feast, the first Passover was made present to them as a “memorial.” In fact, when later Jewish rabbis wrote about the Passover, they said that when a Jew celebrates the feast, it was as if he himself were walking out of Egypt with his great ancestors from the Exodus generation. [Pesahim, 10.5] The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes a similar point:

In the sense of Sacred Scripture the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them.
[CCC 1363]

In this way, the first Passover event was extended in time so that each new generation could participate spiritually in this foundational event of their liberation from servitude. The annual Passover feast thus forged solidarity throughout the generations. All Israelites participated in the Passover. All were saved from slavery in Egypt. All were united in the one covenant family of God.


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