This reflection on a prayer in all the Catholic and Orthodox liturgies is based on an interesting article by Sebastian Brock, “The Thrice-Holy Hymn in the Liturgy.” The hymn to is also known as the Sanctus, and in the liturgy, it is joined with the Benedictus. The words of this hymn are: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts (Sabaoth). 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.”
As used in the liturgy, the two elements, called the “Hosanna” and the “Benedictus” are taken from the Greek (Septuagint) version of the words of Isaiah 6:3, and from Matthew 21:9 which alludes to Psalm 118 (117). There are differences: Isaiah refers to “the whole earth,” and speaks about God, but in the liturgy we speak of “heaven and earth,” and directly address God. The word “God” was added, probably under the influence of Apocalypse 4:8.
St Ephrem is the earliest witness to the identification of the burning charcoal of Isaiah 6 with the Eucharist itself. This is a central point. In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet has a vision of God among his seraphim, in the Temple, and he immediately declares that he is unworthy and has “unclean lips.” Then, one of the seraphim purifies his lips with a burning coal, saying “your guilt is taken away, your sin is forgiven.” Isaiah is soon given a mission to perform. So there is a chain: confession of sin, forgiveness and sanctification, mission.
This is the basis of Ephrem’s tenth Hymn on Faith, which we use often in our Maronite liturgy: “the Spirit is in your Bread, the Fire in your Wine, a manifold wonder which our lips have received. When the Lord came to earth to mortal beings, He created them again in a new creation, like angels, mingling Fire and Spirit within them so that in hidden manner they might be of fire and spirit.” The hymn also refers to the seraphim, the coal, and Isaiah’s lips.
Another early Syrian witness, Theodoret, stated that the use of the word “Holy” three times alluded to the Most Holy Trinity. However, sometimes it is understood as referring only to the Father or to the Son. As Brock points out, the Benedictus clearly refers to Christ, and in Syria the Trisagion or “Holy are you, God” (Qadišat aloho) was understood as referring to the Son. This is the Maronite interpretation, hence we add phrases such as “Messiah born of the Daughter of David.”
Brock makes an interesting observation: we in the Eastern Syriac tradition keep the Trisagion as Christ-referring, and the “Holy Gifts to the Holy” as Trinitarian. In Constantinople, they reversed this: their Trisagion is Trinitarian and their “Holy Gifts” refers to the Lord. Neither understanding is wrong says Brock: they are complementary, and this is show by the fact that we adopt two different interpretations of Isaiah 6:3 in the one liturgy. He adds: “In a wider liturgical context, (this) implies that unity is to be sought in a common skeletal structure, and not in the flesh that covers the skeleton.” His next remarks deserve to be quoted more extensively:
In the Book of Isaiah the ‘thrice-holy’ hymn accompanies … the revelation of God’s glory on earth; appropriately enough it comes shortly before the Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7. … this theophany is understood … as having supremely taken place at the incarnation, and then continuously, at each celebration of the eucharistic Liturgy, at the coming of Christ in the consecrated Bread and Wine. It is thus entirely fitting that we should join the seraphim and the other heavenly beings in the acclamation of God’s holiness in acknowledgement of this coming.
I will pause to note that this shows how inspired it was to join the “Hosanna” and the “Benedictus” or “Blessed is He.” The hymn about the holiness of God is affixed to the praise of the coming of God in his holiness in the Second Person of the Trinity. Brock continues:
In scripture ‘holiness’ is an attribute of God’s nature; and since ‘holiness’ is understood in the Jewish tradition as implying separateness, the acclamation ‘Holy is the Lord Sabaoth’ is accordingly a statement about God’s separateness, or transcendence. ‘Glory’, on the other hand, is what accompanies God when he reveals himself in Creation. Thus in the Sanctus we are presented with a movement from transcendence to immanence. This movement from God to creation always invites a response, a movement back from humanity to God. In the biblical understanding this movement back, from humanity to God, is also associated with the idea of holiness. Whenever we make any offering to God we too set things aside, separate them for the specific use of God; we place things in the realm of God, we consecrate them. And by belonging to God, the offering itself becomes holy, benefitting, as it were, from God’s holiness.
In the Eucharistic Liturgy above all we encounter this double movement, from God to humanity, and from humanity to God, where the meeting point of the two movements is Christ … who is made present through the power of the Holy Spirit …
The final observation is that Isaiah’s experience is reflected in the Divine Liturgy: we confess our sinfulness, we express contrition, we receive forgiveness (the Hoosoye or Incense Prayer), and after the Eucharistic Communion are sent out on mission, (relatively) sanctified. This sanctification is what is often called theosis or “divinisation.” It is not the absolute holiness of God, but part of the movement to sanctification. It is surprising how much can come from a careful reading of a prayer in the Liturgy which we take for granted.