Preface and Sanctus

(c) William Wright, 2020

Preface Dialogue

After the offertory chant over the bread and wine at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the priest ritually washes his hands, asking for God’s cleansing mercy of the priest’s own sins. Then, standing at the altar, the priest speaks directly to the people saying, “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” Unlike most of the words given to the priest by the Roman Missal, this is not a prayer. In Latin, the words are Orate, Fratres. Orate is an imperative form of the verb “to pray.” It is a command.

In the Orate, Fratres, the priest is commanding the faithful gathered to pray, to get into the battle, so to speak. The faithful respond, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.” This is a very important moment in the Holy Mass. The people are acknowledging that the Sacrifice being offered is 1) primarily at the hands of the priest, 2) is for the praise and glory of God, and 3) is for the “making holy” (sanctification) of the people.

Then the priest says the Offertory Prayer. Immediately after this, the Eucharistic Prayer, as a whole, begins. The Roman Canon is the main part of the Eucharistic Prayer, but there are three parts which come first: The Preface Dialogue, the Eucharistic Preface, and the Sanctus.

It should be noted that after the priest says the Orate, Fratres and he is offering the Mass in the ad orientem posture, the Roman Missal does not direct him to turn back towards the people until the Ecce Agnus Dei (“Behold the Lamb of God…”). He is in the fight. His attention, and ours, should then be entirely fixed upon entering into the Sacred Action of the one Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, presented once more, outside of space and time.

Attention entirely fixed upon the task at hand, the priest begins the Eucharistic Prayer by saying, “The Lord be with you.” (Latin: Dominus vobiscum) The people respond, “And with your spirit.” (Latin: Et cum spiritu tuo) This small exchange is not a greeting. The priest is acknowledging that, in our Baptism, we are members of the Body of Christ. And as members of the Body of Christ, we offer ourselves in union with the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

We say, “And with your spirit” because we are acknowledging that by the power of the Holy Spirit, in his ordination, the priest is acting in the Person of Christ the Head of His Body. We are not speaking of “your spirit” as the priest’s human spirit. We are acknowledging his priestly spirit, in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Next the priest says, “Lift up your hearts.” (Latin: Sursum corda) The people respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” (Latin: Habemus ad Dominum) Literally in Latin, this response means something like, “We hold towards the Lord.” This means we are lifting our hearts now or we have already been lifting them up and will continue to do so. God, ever-patient, is giving us another chance to clue in to the miracle in front of us before we charge into the breach in the battle of prayer.

Then the priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” (Latin: Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro) And the people acclaim, “It is right and just.” (Latin: Dignum et iustum est) It is “right” for us to give thanks to God because that is why human beings were ultimately created. We are made to worship God. It is “just” because God alone deserves glory and praise.

This ancient dialogue of the Preface Dialogue begins the Eucharistic Prayer. It reminds us of who we are as priest and people, Head and Members of the Body of Christ. It reminds us of our active internal role in entering into the Sacrifice of the Mass. It reminds us of the glory due to God and our role in offering Him praise.

Eucharistic Preface

After the Preface Dialogue begins the Eucharistic Preface proper. Preface comes from the Latin praedicatio meaning “speaking before.” The General Instruction of the Roman Missal lists thanksgiving as the first main element of the Eucharistic Prayer saying, “The thanksgiving (expressed especially in the Preface), in which the Priest, in the name of the whole of the holy people, glorifies God the Father and gives thanks to him for the whole work of salvation or for some particular aspect of it, according to the varying day, festivity, or time of year (GIRM 79a).”

At the time of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal in English being released in 2011, there were 156 Eucharistic Prefaces. This rich diversity in the Eucharistic Prefaces has roots in the history of the Church but is one of the developments which followed the Second Vatican Council. In my view, this expansive diversity allows the priest and faithful to enter deeper into the liturgical calendar of the Church. The Eucharistic Prefaces simply allow for a further solemnization of whatever feast or memorial is being marked on that day. 

In the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 17, we see Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer at the Last Supper. Jesus offers glory to the Father, giving Him thanks. He prays for the Apostles who are present, but also prays for those who are not present. He prays ardently for all His followers “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us… (Jn. 17:21).”

With this view of eternal salvation at the fore, the Eucharistic Preface offers thanks to God for such a great gift. Coming off the tail end of the Preface Dialogue, the priest echoes the final words of the people, “It is truly right and just…” He continues in every Preface with the words, “… our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.”

Then, there is a paragraph which draws a general or specific action of God the Father for which we give thanks to Him. Sometimes, this helps us to reflect on a specific aspect of God’s goodness. For example, the Preface of the Sacred Heart of Jesus says this, “For raised up high on the Cross, he gave himself up for us with a wonderful love and poured out blood and water from his pierced side, the wellspring of the Church’s Sacraments, so that, won over to the open heart of the Savior, all might draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.” Clearly here, we see reference to the Sacred Heart of Jesus from which flowed blood and water, calling to mind Baptism and Eucharist.

The third and final paragraph of the Eucharistic Preface sets up the Sanctus hymn by offering praise to God in union, especially calling to mind our union with the angels and the saints.

The Sanctus

The Sanctus is one of the oldest congregational hymns in existence. In Greek it is the ton epinikion hymnon or “Hymn of Victory.” This the final part of the Eucharistic Preface and is said or sung at every single Mass in the Latin Rite. The hymn also exists in some form in all but one of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church.

Historically, in the Latin Church, the bells were rung at the start of the Sanctus to signal that the Roman Canon was coming imminently. Let us now walk through the Sanctus piece by piece.

“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.” (Latin: Sanctus, Santus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.) There are two main points of interest I would like to draw out here: the repetition of Holy and the word “hosts.”

In English, and many other languages, there are words called comparatives and superlatives. For example, we have the word “good,” the comparative “better,” and the superlative “best.” In Hebrew, this construction does not exist. To say “better,” you would say “good, good.” And to say “best,” you would say, “good, good, good.” Therefore, to say Holy, Holy, Holy is saying that God is the Most Holy. It is also a call to worship, often done in threes. Think, for example, of the popular Christmas chant where “O come, let us adore Him (Venite adoremus)” is repeated three times.

The word “hosts” refers to the heavenly hosts of angels, which St. Luke refers to in his account of the birth of Jesus. These legions of angels do the will of God and bring Him glory. They are with us in the fight and they join us in worship of Him.

As Dr. Scott Hahn wrote so eloquently, “When we go to Mass, the congregation is never small, even if it is nonexistent in terms of human attendance. The angels are there, as is evident even in the words of the Mass: ‘And so with all the choirs of angels we sing: Holy, holy, holy…’ The Mass itself cries out for us to be aware of our angels (Hahn, Signs of Life).”

“Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” (Latin: Pleni sunt cæli et terra gloria tua) Of course, here we are giving God praise, acclaiming the truth that for those with the eyes of Faith, He is recognizable all around. All things are directed ultimately to Him.

“Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” (Latin: Hosanna in excelsis. Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Hosanna in excelsis.) This refers to the cry of the people as Christ entered Jerusalem to the sight of palm branches being waved, reminiscent of Solomon’s entrance into Jerusalem. The people exclaimed of Christ, “And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ (Mt. 21:9)”

Hosanna means “Praise to the Lord!” And so, we are offering praise to the Father for the gift of the Son. In this hymn, the coming of Christ in the Nativity is called to mind. We know that Christ will come again. The Sanctus reminds that Christ comes to us now. At the Mass, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus become present under the veil of a sacrament on the altar.

The Sanctus, with its mention of the angels and the triumph of Christ, is like a bridge between Heaven and earth. The Lord of Heaven and earth is drawing us deep into His heart. The eternal self-offering of the Son to the Father in the Spirit is veiled before us by signs and symbols. But there is no doubt that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, especially in the Eucharistic Prayer is a foretaste of Heaven.

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