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Isaiah 6:1-4

(For the text click on the first link below)

Text: Martin Luther (1483-1546) Tune: Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Prophet Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo


Isaiah's vision of the Lord of Hosts is one of the grandest in Scripture. It endures in The Sanctus, central to the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. Luther’s version is called the German Sanctus. It gives more of the context for the hymn than the Latin liturgy does. Here we get the context of the biblical text: who saw it and where--Isaiah in the temple which was filled with smoke from incense and the seraphim singing. In it we also have the language of Palm Sunday, Hosanna in the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna!.

Martin Luther

This was part of Luther’s Deutsche Messe, or German mass. He prepared a hymn version of the Latin mass so people could sing it in the language and music they understood. Because the Gregorian chants were right for the Latin language and the people had heard it for generations sung to the chant music, it was not strange for them, but trying to get the chants to speak German, a highly accented language, as opposed to the syllabic unaccented poetry of Latin or Greek, was difficult. When Luther translated the Latin into German he realized the natural vernacular of the German people was the chorale melody. So his German mass or chorale mass as some call it uses German hymns for what is called the Ordinary of the Mass—the five parts of the communion liturgy that are always part of the service: the Kyrie, The Gloria, the Creed, the Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Germans could easily sing them because they were in their vernacular music and text.

The hymn mass became the standard service for many Lutherans, especially the Dano-Norwegian church. Thomas Hansen Kingo (1632-1703), the Danish bishop, prepared a hymnal with a hymn mass for every Sunday—using hymns for the ordinary, especially the Kyrie and Gloria, and Creed. So the first hymnals of the Dano-Norwegian tradition until the Lutheran Hymnary of 1913 in America, were organized by Sundays: The First Sunday in Advent, the Second, etc. Appropriate hymns for the lesson of the day appeared under the Sunday, not the theme of the hymn. Since communion was celebrated less frequently, they could add the Sanctus and Agnus Dei on those days. Oddly what endured was the Gloria by Nicolas Decius, a contemporary of Luther, "All Glory Be to God on High," which Luther did not include in his service. It, however, became the first hymn in many Lutheran hymnals. When Gustav Jensen, a Norwegian scholar, changed the old hymn liturgy in 1887, he took out the old song service of hymns preferring instead the old Latin chants translated into prose and set to chant music. Now chants reign in most hymnals that include the Holy Communion liturgy.

While Luther’s version of the Sanctus is almost impossible for someone who has never heard it before, for those who grew up singing it, its majesty is almost as mystical and powerful as the event Isaiah pictured: of being in the temple, overwhelmed by the incense, hearing the six-winged seraphim thundering out their song. It also reminds us of the poor welcoming our Lord riding a donkey into the Holy City, crying Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Both the very grand and the very humble gather together here when we celebrate the coming of our Lord in the elements which we receive at the altar. (In Luther’s time, the congregation went up first for bread, returned, and then back for the wine, singing Agnus Dei, O Lamb of God.)

Luther concludes his reflections on the Sanctus with this note: "[Christ} is only apprehended by faith; for we cannot see how Christ gives his body and blood for us and even now daily shows and offers it before God to obtain grace for us.” Christ is hidden to those without faith. Those who see with only their worldly eyes will be puzzled. How is it that in this simple man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, greeted with joy by the most simple, the unwashed, and poor, the majesty of God appears? How is it that in a word, a crumb of bread, or sip of wine, God in all his grandeur himself becomes one with us?

It is the glory and mystery of our God who loves the least of us enough to become one of us. Hosanna!


Luther wrote this hymn in 1525 after seeing the many German masses that were flooding the market, many of which were ungainly and rough. He thought that the text, notes, accent and melody “ought to grow out of the true mother tongue and its inflection...otherwise all of it becomes an imitation in the manner of the apes." (Luther's Works vol. 53, p. 54.) In his preface to the service, he showed his great skill with both language and melody, concerned for how the tune and text enhanced one another. It was first used in Wittenberg on October 25, 1525 and was published in 1526. It has been set by a good number of Reformation musicians, Praetorius' the most beloved. Enjoy! I attach a favorite hymn of mine, "Just a Crumb, Lord" using the notion that it is in the very smallest thing that God gives us his entire self.


Lutheran Summer Camp--This gives you a sense for the glory of the hymn

Dresdener Kreuzkor

Jeff Windolski Organ version

Schola Cantorum of St. Peter the Apostle

Michael Praetorius Motet on the hymn

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