‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ Hosanna in the highest!”
These words are the bulk of the Sanctus, the canticle sung just prior to the Words of Institution of Holy Communion. Here is the text of the Sanctus in full:
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.
Last devotion we contemplated how the introductory verses from Psalm 22 can serve as an excellent primary on the Sanctus and its role in the liturgy. Here are those words:
My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?
Why are You so far from helping Me,
And from the words of My groaning?
O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear;
And in the night season, and am not silent.
But You are holy,
Enthroned in the praises of Israel.
“But You are holy” is a confession much like that of the Seraphim, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” There’s only one holy in the “but You are holy” because the mystery of the Holy Trinity hadn’t been revealed yet. Only the seraphim knew of this mystery.
“Enthroned in the praises of Israel” parallels nicely the action of Israel “carrying” Jesus into Jerusalem on their praises, “Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” The symbolism of the donkey and colt works with this theme as well. The donkey and colt were that on which Jesus sat – a throne – and as we’ve seen from the Old Testament law, the colt was redeemed by the sacrifice of a lamb. The donkey and colt represent us, who in our praises bear the Lamb of God who redeems us.
And that death of the Lamb draws us back to the opening verses of Psalm 22, the cry of the Messiah to the God who abandoned Him and doesn’t hear. The Messiah endured this so that He indeed may be present among us, enthroned in our praises. That’s the whole tone of Psalm 22, “I the Messiah am abandoned, but you O Lord are faithful to Israel.” Yes, He’s faithful to Israel precisely because of the Suffering Servant. “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
This Psalm 22/Sanctus connection is a nice foundation on which to inspect the “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” There’s a “downward flow” to the Sanctus. It begins in heaven, “but you are holy,” yes, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” as testified by the Seraphim. You can’t get much higher than Seraphim other than God Himself. The expanded three “holies” of the seraphim, as we said, suggests they had a fuller testimony of the three-fold nature of our Lord than they did in the Old Testament.
“Holy, Holy, Holy” is high up in heaven indeed! Even when this first comes up, in Isaiah 6, we hear, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, the earth is full of thy glory.” We’re not even permitted to know if His glory is in heaven! We have no entry there! How can we share a testimony with the seraphim of a glory in heaven we have no right to share?
But in the Sanctus something has changed. What changed is Jesus. God has taken on human flesh. The one enthroned in heaven is now enthroned on earth, on donkeys and in Israel’s confessions and praise. Now it’s not just seraphim in the highest heaven singing eternally about heavenly truths Isaiah can only bear testimony to. Now it’s children and God’s Church singing what only angels used to be permitted to sing. Let’s look at the several examples of this from the Sanctus.
First there’s the change we see in that, where in Isaiah 6 we learn “the earth is full of your glory,” in the Sanctus we sing, “heaven and earth is full of your glory.” Now we are permitted to share that testimony, that God’s glory fills not just earth, but heaven! Why? Because we’ve been granted permission of access into heaven through Christ. We can confess that God’s glory is in heaven because we realize it by faith.
The second thing we see in the Sanctus is the phrase “hosanna in the highest.” “Highest” is not in the original verse from Psalm 118, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” That was added by the people on Palm Sunday.
In fact, what we learn about what is “highest,” and God’s place there, and what was a natural attitude of Old Testament people, is best articulated from Eliphaz The Temanite in the book of Job: “Is not God in the height of heaven? And see the highest stars, how lofty they are! And you say, ‘What does God know? Can He judge through the deep darkness? Thick clouds cover Him, so that He cannot see, And He walks above the circle of heaven.’ ”
God is so high, He’s transcendent beyond any care for humanity. This is an Islamic understanding of God, as well the foundational theology for a more Gnostic understanding of God.
Yet, on account of Christ’s incarnation the children can cry out, “Hosanna in the highest.” Or, “Please save us in the highest.” Or, in other words, “In the highest realm, may our Savior do His work for us.” Jesus, who has ascended to the highest, puts us in God’s sight, making us an objective of His salvation, His care.
But at the same time our thoughts are ascending to the “highest” and to the place of the “Holy, Holy, Holy” one, we can’t ever forget where our focus is. The one enthroned in our praises is “Lowly and riding on a donkey.” Heaven is on earth!
And this leads to the final thing we see in the Sanctus showing us how in Jesus heaven and earth come together. It’s the phrase, “blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” What’s the name of the Lord? It’s the baptismal name, the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s the name testified to with the three-fold holy. Jesus comes in that name. Jesus comes in the name testified to by angels. That which is a mystery unknown in the Old Testament but by the seraphim becomes revealed in the incarnate Christ on the donkey, confessed by children.
The Sanctus obviously sets us up for the great event to come, Holy Communion. God from the highest heaven above comes to us – blessed is He – to save us, and He does so humbly, in the person of Jesus Christ, in bread and wine, in the Church. At communion, heaven and earth come together. Few better canticles set up that truth than the Sanctus.