Rev. Daniel R. Hyde, minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America, writes:
“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 Lord. 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 Lord 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.
The sursum corda has been used in the worship of God’s people for millennia to summon worshippers 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 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! ”