(John Rose, October 2022)
The Liturgy of the Eucharist, the source and summit of our life in Christ, brings heaven near to us, as both angels and mortal men stand again in wonder before the sacrifice of the Son of God: “This is my body broken for you”. The prayers made at these moments are unmatched in their antiquity, consequence, and beauty; they are loaned to us from the repertoire of Heaven. When we sing or speak the Sanctus, the Benedictus, the Hosanna, we take our place with a choir of immortals, singing a timeless liturgy hinted at in Scripture, in the sixth chapter of Isaiah, and the Revelation to the apostle John, which please God we shall someday join forever.
It is right and just that such prayers be given in all times and places on Earth, always with full participation from our minds and hearts. It is also right and just that these prayers be clothed, on special occasions, in the finest external ceremony and musical accompaniment that we humans can muster. As I have already written, the recently recorded Mass of the Americas by Frank La Rocca is yet another such panoply of adornment that befits the Latin Mass. Unlike many other classical settings of the Mass, this one perfectly fits the structure of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Thus, it has been not simply performed as music alone, but has beautified the actual prayers of Christ’s Church.
I would like to share personal impressions from this particular setting of the Sanctus, the prayer that begins “Holy, holy, holy”. I was at the premiere of this mass in 2018, celebrated by San Francisco’s Archbishop Cordileone, who commissioned La Rocca’s work. Then, and every time since, the Sanctus, both in the eternal words and their new dress in music, seemed to open up a wider window into the throne room of Heaven. (The Sanctus of Bach’s B Minor Mass also does this for me, although I have not witnessed its use in a Mass.) What is special about this work by La Rocca is that the high, even severe dignity of European classical music is carefully mixed with gentler textures from folk music, derived specifically from Mexican music devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe. (Those who study the details of the Mass may note that, regardless of any music, these prayers can also be seen as a similar mix of “high” and “low” meanings.) So when I listen to this “musically mixed” Sanctus, I seem to be hearing, yet more clearly, of both the dignity of the Son of God and the kindness of the Son of Man. Perhaps you will too. Here is the recorded track: Mass of the Americas, Sanctus – Benedictus, and here is its use (with video) at the basilica in Washington, D.C.
Personally, as I have listened to the Sanctus (and the rest of this mass), its impression on me has grown into something like a vision, of sight and sound, feel and smell of (perhaps) some inkling of the eternal round of worship in Heaven. At the risk of vanity, I would like to share what I seem to glimpse as I hear–and contemplate and pray–this setting of the Sanctus. (It is a glimpse that sometimes warms my heart in everyday masses as well.) Here is how one might put such a thing into words…
As we enter the doors of a vast temple, ranks of mighty seraphim call and reply without ceasing, “holy, holy, holy”, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth. The hall fills to its high ceiling with clouds of frankincense and the fiery glow of tall angels. Smoke curls up to the ceiling as the voices of stringed instruments take up the theme: “Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory.” The ground trembles. High and far away, new voices cry Hosanna in excelsis. To the front, the glow brightens, and a new note calls us forward. Benedictus, “blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” From beyond the altar, even as the building fills with praise, comes a warm glow as of a human hearth, the music of a gentle dance, and the smell of bread. It is the Son of Man. The vision ends as the voices cry once again, Hosanna in excelsis.