WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: The Sursum Corda

“Lift up your hearts!” “We lift them up to the Lord!” We say these words every Lord’s Day as we prepare to receive the bread and wine in Holy Communion. This responsive refrain is known as the Sursum Corda, which is simply Latin for “Lift up your hearts.” Why we do this? Where did this tradition come from, and what does it mean? Here are a few reasons why we say the Sursum Corda every Lord’s Day in the Divine Service.

The Sursum Corda is biblical

When we say the Sursum Corda, we can be confident that we are using biblical language.  In Psalm 25, David begins his prayer by saying, “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.” In Psalm 86, he says, “Gladden the heart of your servant, for to you, O LORD, do I lift up my soul.” And in Psalm 143, he says, “Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.” The Hebrew expression “lift up” essentially means to cry out for or set one’s heart on something. David uses this expression in the Psalms to describe his desire to worship the Lord and commune with him. Jeremiah uses the same phrase in Lamentations: “Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (3.41). The Sursum Corda, then, is biblical language that expresses the longing of our hearts to commune with God. It is an appropriate prayer as we prepare to come to the Table of our Lord.

The Sursum Corda is historical

The church has used the Sursum Corda in worship since at least the early third century. We find references to it in the writings of several early church fathers. For example, Cyprian (c.210-258), the bishop of Carthage, said in his treatise on the Lord’s Prayer: 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.” We find similar statements in the writings of Hippolytus of Rome (170-235), Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386), and Augustine of Hippo (354-430).

In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformers did not condemn the Sursum Corda. To the contrary, John Calvin (1509-1564) recognized the wisdom in this ancient practice, especially in connection to the Lord’s Supper. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin said,

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.

The Sursum Corda is helpful

God calls us to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3.1). The Sursum Corda helps us do this. We pray it in faith, trusting in God’s promise that as surely as we receive the bread and wine at the Table, so too we receive the body and blood of Christ in heaven. By saying the Sursum Corda, we acknowledge the mystery of the sacrament, and trust that the Holy Spirit will cause us to commune with our ascended Savior. It is not an empty ritual or just something else to do in worship. The Sursum Corda is nothing less than Christ’s flock crying to their Shepherd, preparing to be fed.

So, come, believing sinners, let us lift up our hearts to the Lord!

~ Pastor Brown