Heilig, heilig, heilig, heilig ist derr Herr!
Heilig, heilig, heilig, heilig ist nur Er!
Holy, holy, holy, holy is the Lord!
Holy, holy, holy, holy God alone!
It is a beautiful spring day as I begin to ponder this hymn. I don’t know why I chose to place it this week, but as I listen to the breeze rustling through the leaves outside my window, I think maybe it was meant to remind me of the value of holiness. As I looked for a definition of the word holy, I found that it is sort of difficult to pin down. It can mean sacred and worthy of devotion; it can mean spiritual or religious. It can be about spaces, behaviours, people and the Divine. It’s a little bit mysterious – and something I suspect we don’t contemplate very often in our modern world.
This hymn comes from Schubert’s Deutsche Messe (German Mass; 1827). It is the Sanctus portion of the mass, which is a prayer of thanks to God – sung with the angels, who are said to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” unceasingly. Apparently this element of the liturgy is one of the oldest we have evidence of, dating back to St. Clement of Rome who died around 104. So the church has been honouring this holiness with song for almost two thousand years, probably longer. Interesting.
God, who, uncreated, God who always was,
endlessly exalted, reign for evermore.
Mighty, wondrous, loving, circled round with awe:
holy, holy, holy, holy is the Lord.
There is something peaceful about this music. The words are simple. The description of God is powerful. God is not created. No matter how we try to craft the Divine in our image, that simply isn’t the nature of this holiness. And I think we do that often. It seems we desperately want to understand this thing that is beyond us. We want a God that makes sense. We want a God to back our ideas and justify our actions. We want a God that looks like us. But the Divine will not be diminished to fit into our ideas and spaces.
In a world where everything has been reduced to the easily grasped and the familiar, finding holiness becomes our challenge. Because we need mystery and we need awe. Wonder reminds us of our smallness in the universe while it gifts us an understanding of our worth. And we are worthy of holiness.
Like the sound of the breeze in the trees, there is a peaceful mystery to the holy. Listen.