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Choral Corner #34: In the Holy Anaphora, what does "Sabaoth" mean?

The Scriptural source of this text, called the Sanctus in western Christianity, is the majestic vision recorded in Isaiah 6, in which seraphīm call out to one another, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts [Sabaoth]; the whole earth is full of His glory” (6:3). The Hebrew word Sabaoth means “armies” or “hosts” — in this context, the angelic hosts: the divine army of angels. Both the original Greek and Slavonic, as well as most English-language recensions of the Anaphora, employ the appellation “Lord of Sabaoth” (Господь Саваоф/Κύριος Σαβαώθ) verbatim. However, some English scores use the alternate phrase, “Lord God of Sabaoth” here. Why?

In addition to the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the “Holy, Holy, Holy” — called the Sanctus in western Christianity — occurs in the Roman Catholic Mass, and in certain Protestant traditions such as Anglicanism and Lutheranism, which have been strongly and undeniably influenced by Roman Catholicism. The text of the Catholic Latin Mass was formally codified at the Council of Trent (hence its proper name, the Tridentine Mass), which was held in three sessions between 1545-1563. The Latin Sanctus is: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth: pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria Tua; hosanna in excelsis. The Church of England, founded at roughly the same time, was the first Christian confession to use this text in English, paving the way for many English Sanctus arrangements outside the Orthodox Church.

Anglophone Orthodoxy, however, retains a strong preference for the original biblical language, with some exceptions, such as certain Greek or Slavonic scores adapted for English use by persons inexperienced in western classical music notation, which is utterly different from that of both Znammeny and Byzantine chant, and therefore outside the comfort zone of many of the spiritual athletes who brought Orthodoxy, with its vast and varied musical traditions, to America. In such cases, the word “God” is sometimes inserted because it seems to fit the rhythm of the existing music without the need to modify the score itself.

At other times, the issue is facility with the English language itself. For example, Fan Noli (Theofan Stilian Noli, Metropolitan and founder of the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese in America, which is now part of the OCA) routinely translated the Slavonic phrase “Ghospodi pomiluj” (“Lord, have mercy”) as “Lord our God, have mercy” because “Ghospodi” has three syllables. Fortunately for us, in the Christian context the words “Lord” and “God” are essentially cognates, so there is no theological issue here — merely and arguably a poetic one.

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