Sursum Corda: Elevating Our Worship

by Michael Raia

The Ecstasy of St. Paul, Nicolas Poussin

The Ecstasy of St. Paul, Nicolas Poussin

It's an ancient dialogue shared between the priest celebrant and the assembly in every Mass: the Sursum Corda, the original Latin words of the Mass meaning "Lift up your hearts", or "Hearts up!". It is part of the preface of the eucharistic prayer or anaphora found in each of the earliest known Christian liturgies. Its meaning is profound, and holds the key to true and authentic liturgical participation in order to yields its fruits; to affect conversion, bring about salvation, and spur on the missionary efforts of the Church. 

This imperative and its response, "We lift them up to the Lord," is a turning point in the liturgy, and often offers a telling duality of those on auto-pilot and those who are actually quite enthusiastic about this opportunity. At the transition from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, as the Word which has been proclaimed begins to take on flesh – on the altar through the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and in our hearts as we consume this precious gift and are transformed by its grace – what the Church intends is a deep, two-fold meaning. 

First, the Church intends that we are actually making an offering of hearts – that we are giving them to God. The preface takes place just after the gifts have been offered; the physical representation of what we bring to the liturgy to be given to God, which is the gifts of bread and wine and the collection. Of course we know that the holy sacrifice of the Mass is Christ's on the cross, made real and present on the altar by the power of the Holy Spirit, but this sacrifice is also ours: "Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father." This previous command reminds us that the people are a necessary and essential part of the liturgy – that we have a duty to worship God in this way, giving our hearts and making an offering of ourselves. As we are gathered in the Church, all of Christ's body – the head who is Christ himself symbolized (which is to say both signified and made present) in the priest, along with each of us as members – is offered to the Father in the moment of Christ's death on Calvary.

What this action requires is humble obedience; it means that we check our consumer mentality at the door and lift our gaze as we lift our hearts. The liturgy is about God and joining us to him. Although he meets us exactly where we are in our sin and weakness, he calls us higher because our destiny is heaven. Heaven, then, must be our aspiration. We elevate our hearts, which is to say that we not only make them an offering, but we make them heavenly, because the liturgy itself is our earthly participation in the glory of heaven. Our worship is not something of this world. When we lift up our hearts, we are doing it the way that heaven does it – a transformation to perfection by grace. We follow this action by joining our voices with those of the heavenly host singing "Holy, Holy Holy" – the scriptural anthem of heaven that reminds us that we too, as the people of God longing for union with him in heaven, must become holy.

Second, we know that whatever we give to God is returned glorified. Our offering is taken up to the Father and made perfect as he is working in us to make us perfect – a true reflection of his love. If we truly lift up our hearts, we not only worship God in this way, but we are made holy; he returns our hearts in a better state then they came in. This sacramental action of the transformation of grace is foreshadowed by the Transfiguration and fulfilled in the Resurrection and Ascension – Jesus offers the gift of his whole self and it is returned, glorified as he is restored to union with the Father. Because Christ is the firstborn of the new Creation, we must follow his example of dying, rising, and being received into the glory of heaven – perfect union with the Father in the love of the Trinity, which we do as members of Christ's own perfected body. 

These two elements of this simple and profound dialogue reflect the two purpose of the liturgy: to give God glory and to make us holy. In worship we give God what he is due; we acknowledge his is the source of all that is good, and we thank him and praise him for it. As we do this, we align ourselves with all that God intends for his creation – beauty, truth, and goodness, and as a result, we are sanctified. This is God's plan for every Mass that we attend. This is God's plan for preparing his children to join him in eternity. Next time we are implored to lift up our hearts, let us do so with the eager anticipation of exactly what God has in store for us if we do! 

For more wisdom, perspective, and implications of this subject, please see the Liturgical Institute's Episode 27 of Elements of the Catholic Mass.