Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship we do? In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our Lutheran worship service.
At Christmastime we pause to remember with awe and wonder the miracle of the incarnation of Christ. When He was born that night in Bethlehem, an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds and announced that the child that had been born of Mary is Christ the Lord. In Him God came down to our world; He even took on our own human nature so that as a man He could take our place and redeem us. He could live a perfect life and in our place offer to God the perfect obedience that we could never give Him. Then He could offer up His body joined with His divine nature as a sacrifice to God sufficient to atone for all human sin.
It is for this act of divine grace that we join our hearts and voices to praise God in the Sanctus. This part of the liturgy prepares our hearts to receive Christ’s body and blood with the bread and wine in Holy Communion. For it brings to our minds how God came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and that He did this not to condemn us but to save us.
The Sanctus (Latin for holy, from which we get our English word sanctify) has two parts. The first recalls the vision of God that He granted to Isaiah:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory
In Isaiah 6:1-8 the prophet records this extraordinary experience. He beheld the Lord in visible form sitting on an exalted throne, clothed in a great robe with a train so vast that it filled the temple. Angels called seraphim stood above the throne, each one with six wings: two to cover their faces, two to veil their feet, and two to fly. As they flew, the prophet heard them crying out to one another the words that we sing in the Sanctus.
At this vision of the holy God accompanied by His holy angels, the prophet was terrified. How could he, “a man of unclean lips,” (verse 5) stand in the presence of the King, the Lord of hosts? But the vision was not one of condemnation, but of divine grace. One of the seraphim flew to the prophet with a live coal from the altar and with it touched Isaiah’s mouth and assured him, “Your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.” (verse 7)
The second part of the Sanctus (also called the Benedictus, Latin for blessed, from which we get the word benediction) recalls the events of Palm Sunday and what the crowds called out to Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem:
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna the highest.
These words from Psalm 118 are a plea to God to save, to send down salvation from the highest heaven. They were rightly addressed to Jesus, for they hailed Him as the One Whom God had sent for salvation. On that very day He was on His way to the cross to lay down His life to save the world from sin. It was for that purpose that He had come into the world; it was on this mission of rescue that the Father had sent Him.
These words of the Sanctus are appropriate for us to sing as part of the service of Holy Communion, for in the Sacrament Christ comes to us in the bread that we eat and the wine that we drink. He is the holy Christ exalted to the right hand of God, but He comes to us as the Lord came to Isaiah, not with words of terror, but with the assurance of forgiveness and salvation. He comes to us as the Lamb of God Who laid down His life for us to save us.