Sursum Corda: Lift up your hearts.

Sursum Corda: Lift Up Your Hearts!

Despite the diversity that exists within the church of Jesus Christ, we do well to recall that the different Christian traditions hold much of their liturgical heritage in common. For example, when we come together in worship, most Christian liturgies over the last two millennia have in some way called us to lift up our hearts to the living God. This beautiful invitation is fittingly tied to the celebration of the Lord's Supper, and it usually precedes the "eucharistic" (or "thanksgiving") prayer prior to the setting apart of the elements of bread and wine.

This sursum corda (which means "Let us lift up our hearts" in Latin) bids us acknowledge our absolute dependence on the Most High, who desires to commune with us who are made in his image.

During the sixteenth century, the reformers tried to purge unbiblical elements (such as prayers to the saints and to Mary) from the liturgy. Luther and Cranmer were fairly conservative in their attempts to reform the liturgy, while Zwingli and Calvin were more radical. But all of them retained the sursum corda in some form.

In the years immediately preceding the Reformation, many Christians had believed that the elements of the Lord's Supper were physically transformed (or "transubstantiated") into the body and blood of Jesus Christ and that he was therefore to be worshiped in them. Thus developed such forms of piety as the "veneration of the blessed sacrament."

Like most other reformers, Calvin did not disagree that Christ is in some sense present in the Supper, but he opposed the notion of a localized presence in the bread and wine. Calvin's sursum corda is thus a teaching sursum corda, intended to dispel such ideas:

Let us lift our spirits and hearts on high where Jesus Christ is in the glory of his Father, whence we expect him at our redemption. Let us not he fascinated by these earthly and corruptible elements which we see with our eyes and touch with our hands, seeking him there as though he were enclosed in the bread and wine. Then only shall our souls be disposed to be nourished and vivified by his substance when they are lifted up above all earthly things, attaining even to heaven, and entering the Kingdom of God where he dwells. Therefore let us be content to have the bread and wine as signs and witnesses, seeking the truth spiritually where the Word of God promises that we shall find it.

Most readers would probably find Calvin's sursum corda too wordy for contemporary use. Besides, in a day when Reformed Christians are disinclined to attach superstitious beliefs to the elements of the Lord's Supper, such heavy didacticism is no longer appropriate. As a result, the sursum corda has usually been shortened in most denominations.

Many churches have now recovered the original simplicity and antiphonal character of the earliest Christian liturgies. The Christian Reformed Church's 1981 form ("Service of Word and Sacrament") is a nice example of this development and clearly shows the influence of Hippolytus's third-century liturgy:

Minister: Lift up your hearts.

People: We lift them up to the Lord.

Minister: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

People: It is right for us to give thanks.

Other Reformed denominations, including the Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA), have adopted virtually identical versions of the sursum corda within the context of a recovered eucharistic liturgy in its historic shape.

In light of this, when we next celebrate the Lord's Supper and we respond to the minister's invitation with the glad words, "We lift them up to the Lord," let us remember that we are joining our voices with a huge company of fellow believers from around the world and throughout all the ages. In this way we will be reminded that our liturgies are not the idiosyncratic or arbitrary inventions of any one denomination, but are powerful testimony to the communion of saints.

David T. Koyzis is a professor of political science at Redeemer College, Ancaster, Ontario.


Reformed Worship 22 © December 1991, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.