Chanting "Holy, Holy, Holy..."


By V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian



I often ask the faithful, “what part of the Divine Liturgy impacts you the most?” The most common response is the hymn, “Holy, Holy…” (Sourp, Sourp…). Both the Gomidasian and Egmalian versions of this hymn take the Liturgy to a spiritual climax. It inspires the faithful to worship and praise God with all their heart. The Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches share this chant. I will reflect on the spiritual meaning of this chant.

“Holy, Holy…” (Sanctus or Epinikios Hymnos - ἐπινίκιος ὕμνος) is also known as the “Angelic Song” or “Song of the Seraphim.” The lyrics of the hymn originate from two biblical texts, Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8. Both texts describe how the choirs of angels, Seraphim and Cherubim, praise God and sing:

“Holy, holy, holy Lord of hosts;

Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Blessing in the highest.

Blessed are you who did come and are to come in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.”

Reading the lyrics, we can see that the chant is divided into two parts. The first praises God’s holiness and glory, and the second anticipates God’s coming kingdom. This structure does not occur accidentally. Rather, it bears a special meaning. In order to understand this combination, we should look at the first words of the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy Kingdom come…” In the beginning, God created everything, and saw that it was good. Then, man sinned. This made death a part of life. God only lives in purity and holiness, because God is holy. Why were human removed from the Garden of Eden? God gave humankind holiness through His image and likeness. Man then sinned, which took this away. We cannot enter God’s kingdom if we are not holy. Christ said, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

This chant bridges the Old Testament and the New Testament. In doing so, it takes us to Heaven’s door. Isaiah the prophet and St. John the Apostle witnessed the same heavenly scene in their visions. Isaiah saw his vision and wanted to see the Lord approach, while St. John saw the Lord and then waited for His Second Coming.

Immediately following the Sanctus, the celebrant raises the eucharistic bread and sings Christ’s words from the Last Supper. Next, the celebrant raises the chalice, again singing the Christ’s words from the Last Supper. While we sing with the angels and praise God’s holiness, we anticipate seeing our Lord and His kingdom.

If we only take into consideration our human sinful nature, we are not worthy to see God. We are not holy. We sin every day. But through Christ, God made us worthy to see Him. We see God’s body and blood through the Holy Eucharist, which we should never take for granted. We take Him into our bodies and our souls. By His sacrifice, our Lord Jesus Christ clothed us with His holiness. We belong to God’s holy kingdom because of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Our Lord made us more than just the creatures of a fallen world. We sing the Sanctus with the angels. We glorify God, as if we were already in His heavenly kingdom. We praise Him as He reveals Himself through the Holy Eucharist. Despite our sins, He does not reveal us during the Divine Liturgy! Rather, we benefit every liturgy as Christ dies and rises for us. That is why we worship Him with all our hearts.

This angelic chant reminds us that we should never stop praising God’s holiness. We sometimes convince ourselves that we could never be saint. We often think sainthood is reserved for specific people who are called to sainthood. This is wrong! God calls all of us to sainthood. Our Lord Jesus Christ shed His blood and gave up His life for us. On the contrary, God considers all of us His children. We should let Him free our spirits from earthly desires. We should praise God’s glory and burn with desire to see the Lord.

While the choir sings, “holy, holy…”, the lights of the Holy Altar turn on, the acolytes shake the flabellum (“Kshots”), and the deacon censes. The faithful come to their knees every time the choir sings the word holy. We should feel united with the hosts of angels. God’s holy presence fills the entire church. His presence dominates. Heaven and earth become one. The body and the blood of Christ tear the curtain separating heaven and earth. The Lord of creation walks in our midst and makes everything complete. We should let our spirits feel free and connect with the Creator through the grace of holiness. Throughout the Old Testament, only select people were permitted to see God. However, through His sacrifice, Christ made us all worthy to see Him. We should praise and glorify His holiness, and anticipate His coming kingdom. We should rejoice and sing with the angels. Death has lost its power, and our sins are forgiven!

St. Paul exhorted the faithful in Philippi, saying:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!

Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)