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Lift Up Your Hearts

Increasing the Use of the Sursum Corda

Though written from the perspective of Reformed churches that have Dutch roots, the challenges and suggestions found in this article are helpful across denominations.

—JB

Lift up your hearts!” “We lift them up to the Lord!”

Whether you’ve heard this dialog in the Roman Mass, the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, or in the Protestant worship of an Anglican or Lutheran church, the words of the sursum corda (Latin for “lift up your hearts”) are some of the most beautiful, heart-moving words in all of worship. They express the longing of the soul in this sin-torn world for the wholeness of the new heaven and the new earth. They acknowledge that worship is no banal experience, but a heavenly one.

Although these words are derived directly from Scripture (Ps. 25:1; 86:4; 143:8; Lam. 3:41) and have been used since at least the year a.d. 215 (Hippolytus’s Apostolic Traditions), they have been sorely lacking in our Reformed tradition.

The Biblical Idea of Ascent

We need the sursum corda in our worship because it captures the biblical idea of worship being an ascent into God’s presence.

The saints have ever prayed, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps. 141:2). As we know from texts such as Exodus 30:7-8, the offering of incense perpetually ascended as a sweet-smelling aroma in the nostrils of the L ord. And now in heaven, the heavenly assembly offers up “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8; 8:3).

Whereas the prayers, hands, and hearts of the Old Covenant people were lifted up to the L ord on Mount Zion (Ps. 25:1; 86:4; 118:19-20; 122:1-2; 123:1-2; 132:7; 134:2; 138:2; 143:8; Lam. 3:41), the church now lifts up her “hearts and hands and voices” to the glorious heavenly throne (Rev. 4-5). Thus our identity is heavenly too. We have been raised up with Christ and seated with him in heaven (Eph. 2:6), our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20), and we are called to seek things above (Col. 3:1-2). That identity comes out in worship, when we do “not come to something that can be touched” (Mount Sinai), but “to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:18; 22-23).

Historical Use of the Sursum Corda

We need the sursum corda in our worship because it has been used in Christian worship since ancient times.

The first explicit comments on the sursum corda are those of Cyprian, in his comments on the Lord’s Prayer ( a.d. 250):

Moreover, when we stand for prayer, most beloved brethren, we should be alert and intent on our petitions with a whole heart. Let every carnal and worldly thought depart, and let the mind dwell on nothing other than that alone for which it prays. Therefore, the priest also before his prayer prepares the minds of the brethren by first uttering a preface, saying: “Lift up your hearts,” so that when the people respond: “We lift them up to the Lord,” they may be admonished that they should ponder on nothing other than the Lord.

—The Lord’s Prayer, chapter 31

In expounding on the attitude required in prayer, Cyprian uses the sursum corda as an illustration of being alert and intent with our whole heart as we cast aside all carnal and worldly thoughts in prayer.

Augustine of Hippo used the sursum corda as a sermon illustration for many different topics. He used it to teach that Christians have a heavenly inheritance and that knowing this ought not cause us to “lift up” our minds in pride, but to “lift them up to the Lord” (Sermon 25).

Augustine also uses the sursum corda to discuss our peace in Christ, saying,

What is peace? Listen to the apostle, he was talking about Christ: “He is our peace, who made both into one.” So peace is Christ. Where did it go? “He was crucified and buried, he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven.” There you have where peace went. How am I to follow it? Lift up your heart. Listen how you should follow; every day you hear it briefly when you are told Lift up your heart. Think about it more deeply and there you are, following.

Finally, Augustine uses the sursum corda to speak of banishing worldly thoughts and lifting the heart to heaven where God is.

—Sermon 227, cf. Sermon 261, 263

Cyril of Jerusalem used the sursum corda as a summons into heaven, saying it called the faithful to concentration in prayer and to heavenly-mindedness:

Then the celebrant cries: “Lift up your hearts.” For truly it is right in that most awful hour to have one’s heart on high with God, not below, occupied with earth and the things of earth. In effect, then, the bishop commands everyone to banish worldly thoughts and workaday cares and to have their hearts in heaven with the good God. Assenting, you answer, “We have them lifted up to the Lord.” Let no one present be so disposed that while his lips form the words, “We have them lifted up to the Lord,” in his mind his attention is engaged by worldly thoughts.

—Mystagogical Lectures

The sursum corda has been used in the worship of God’s people for millennia to summon worshipers to lift up their hearts and be heavenly minded.

Using the Sursum Corda in Worship

For these reasons, we ought to increase the use of the sursum corda in our worship in at least three places. The first place is in the opening of the service (see sidebar 1).

In my congregation, after the prelude and announcements we prepare for worship with silence. I then declare that we have been called out of the world for the Lord’s service with the baptismal words of Matthew 28:19 as the cracked linoleum flooring we stand on becomes “holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). In remembrance of our baptism I use Hebrews 10:19-22 as our call to worship. At this point eager anticipation builds. We have been invited into God’s presence by God himself! Our only proper response is to enter that sacred presence. Upon calling out, “Lift up your hearts,” earth-bound, sin-bound creatures cross the holy chasm of time into eternity with the exuberant cry, “We lift them up to the Lord! ”

The second place we use the sursum corda is as a preface to prayer in our evening service, which emphasizes prayer (see sidebar 2).

Using the sursum corda in this way emphasizes the transcendence of God and the experience of worship; therefore our prayer must participate in that transcendence. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches this in Q&A 121: Q. Why the words “in heaven”? A. These words teach us not to think of God’s heavenly majesty as something earthly, and to expect everything for body and soul from his almighty power (emphasis added).

The third way we use the sursum corda is in following the ancient Eucharistic liturgy of the church (see sidebar 3).

What are the implications of this use of the sursum corda? It reinforces the truth that the Lord’s Supper is heavenly. In his exposition of the Supper, John Calvin appeals to the sursum corda:

For, in order that pious souls may duly apprehend Christ in the Supper, they must be raised up to heaven. . . . It was established of old that before consecration the people should be told in a loud voice to lift up their hearts. Scripture itself also not only carefully recounts to us the ascension of Christ, by which he withdrew the presence of his body from our sight and company, to shake from us all carnal thinking of him, but also, whenever it recalls him, bids our minds be raised up, and seek him in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father.

—Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.38

We commune with and upon Christ, not because he is brought down to us, but because we are lifted up to him. As Reformed Christians we deny that Jesus’ humanity is on the Lord’s table; nevertheless, “we do not go wrong when we say that what we eat and drink is the true, natural body and the true blood of Christ” ( Belgic Confession , art. 35).

The sursum corda, therefore, is also an act of faith, by which we become partakers of Christ’s body and blood. The Belgic Confession says that he “nourishes and sustains the spiritual life of the believers when He is eaten by them, that is, spiritually appropriated and received by faith” (art. 35). As Calvin says,

He declares that His flesh is the meat, His blood the drink, of my soul. I give my soul to Him to be fed with such food. In His sacred Supper He bids me take, eat and drink His body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I have no doubt that He will truly give, and I receive.

—Institutes 4.17.2

The sursum corda also adds a sense of heavenly mystery in our worship. We partake of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper through faith, as above, and by virtue of the work of the Holy Spirit: “We do not understand the manner in which this is done, just as we do not comprehend the hidden activity of the Spirit of God” ( Belgic Confession, art. 35). We cannot comprehend this, only apprehend this:

Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ’s flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses, and how foolish it is to wish to measure his immeasurableness by our measure. What, then, our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.

—Institutes 4.17.10

Given the theological significance of the sursum corda for the Reformed understanding of the Supper, it seems wise to restore this liturgical text to our celebration. It is an important part of our theology and it provides a point of continuity with the ancient liturgies. It is not window dressing in the liturgy to make our worship look older, feel more transcendent, or fill in some space. Rather, the sursum corda is an act of worship; it is an affirmation of the gospel.

 

Excerpts

1. The Liturgy for Morning Worship

We Enter the Presence of God

Musical Prelude

Silent Prayer

Call to Worship: Matthew 28:19, Hebrews 10:19-22

Congregation of Jesus Christ, we are gathered in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen!

Brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Lift up your hearts!

We lift them up to the Lord!

The Lord’s Greeting, Revelation 1:4-5

Scripture Response, Psalm 51:15

Doxology with Alleluias

 

2. The Liturgy for Evening Worship

Musical Prelude

The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him. (Hab. 2:20)

Silent prayer

Call to Worship: 1 Peter 2:9, Matthew 28:19

We are gathered as a royal priesthood, to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen!

Opening Prayer of Adoration and Lord’s Prayer

Lift up your hearts!

We lift them up to the Lord!

Let us pray . . . (followed by the Lord’s Prayer)

 

3. The Liturgy for Holy Communion

Psalm/Hymn

The Words of Institution

Warning and Invitation

Brief Instruction

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.

Therefore let us celebrate the feast! (1 Cor. 5:7, 8)

The Great Thanksgiving

Lift up your hearts!

We lift them up to the Lord!

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give Him thanks and praise!

Let us pray to the Lord . . .

Doxology with Alleluias