Reciting the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’

Date: June 2, 2024
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Question: At Mass, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts” needs an internal pause, but where should it go? Many people recite “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,” then pause, and continue with “God of Hosts.” But this does not seem to match Old Testament usage. Isaiah 6:3, the origin of these words, reads, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” Here “Lord” goes with “hosts.” Separated from “Lord,” the phrase “God of hosts” does not sound very biblical. Also, pausing after the third “Holy” gives a more balanced sound: six syllables for the triple “Holy,” followed by four spoken syllables. Pausing after “Lord” makes it seven and three. The printed English missal provides no guidance on this matter. -- D.J., Buffalo, New York


Answer: This is not an easy question to answer.


It is true that the liturgical text is inspired by Isaiah 6:3 (with an allusion to Daniel 7:10). This does not necessarily mean that those who composed the Sanctus understood its full biblical context.


The triple repetition was used in Hebrew to emphasize an idea, in this case a way of saying holiest or most holy. Other examples are Ezekiel 21:32 ("A ruin, a ruin, a ruin, I shall make it!”) and Jeremiah 22:29 "O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD!" 


The use of the Sanctus in Christian prayer is very ancient and might even have entered directly into Christianity from the practice of the synagogue. Its use by Christians is suggested by its presence in the Book of Revelation 4:8-11 and in Pope St. Clement's (A.D. 88-97) letter to the Corinthians. Its introduction to the Mass is probably about two centuries later; it is not found in the earliest known Eucharistic Prayers.


It should be noted that the Christian liturgical version of the Sanctus shows some variations from the Latin biblical text and from that used in the synagogue.


The Latin Bible translates Sabaoth with exercituum whereas the liturgical version leaves the word untranslated. God is the Lord of hosts, which refers to both the angelic choirs and the whole multitude of created beings.


The liturgical text also adds the word "heaven" to earth. This is an important addition because it means that it is not just the temple of Jerusalem nor even only the cherubim and seraphim but the whole of creation that is united in singing God's glory.


The liturgical text also transforms the cry into a personal address, "Your glory," thus underscoring its character as a prayer.


For this reason, the composers of the liturgical text may not have had the biblical nuance of the triple repetition in mind when the first Greek Syriac and Coptic versions of the Sanctus were introduced in the early Church. This can be seen by the fact that the third “Holy” is often separated from the other two and associated with “Lord God,” while on other occasions the three Holies are set apart from “Lord God.”


It was first introduced to the Eucharistic text in the East and later into the Roman rite, perhaps by Pope Sixtus III (died 440). The Latin version contains no separation between the third Sanctus and Dominus Deus Sabaoth. To wit: 


"Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth."


This punctuation choice is also followed in the current English translation which is rendered thus:


"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 punctuation is also followed in the Spanish, Italian and German versions. French and Portuguese, however, have a comma after the third “Sanctus.” This might indicate a certain variability in interpretation but could also be no more than different languages having diverse rules for punctuation. At least it would seem to indicate a degree of ambiguity in the manner of proclaiming the text.


This ambiguity is also carried forward into musical interpretation.


Many traditional Gregorian chant melodies, albeit not all, reflect the Latin punctuation by musically tying the third Sanctus to “Dominus Deus” rather than treating all three independently.


After the publication of the first English translation which said, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,” thus separating “Lord” and “God,” some popular English melodies opted for a rousing triple rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord!” Similar variations are found in the many musical versions for the Sanctus in various languages.


This early musical choice in English might have led to people in some localities reciting the three “holies” in the manner described by our reader. But as mentioned by our correspondent, this does not quite reflect the punctuation of the English missal.


Therefore, while there may be some leeway for musical interpretations, I think that the natural way of verbally proclaiming the “Sanctus” in English would be to follow the punctuation. This would be: 


Holy, Holy, 

Holy Lord God of hosts. [All together as one phrase]


This would effectively maintain better the connection between the third “holy” and “Lord God of hosts.”


At the same time, we are not defending a dogma. Many priests have learned from bitter experience how hard it is to eradicate deeply ingrained habits on the part of clergy and laity alike even when there is good will all round. It is necessary to choose one’s battles well and keep peace of mind.


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Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.


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