Friday, May 28, 2010

Uplifting Prayer

Some things (and people) deserve honor and respect if for no other reason that they’ve been around for a long time. Durability counts.

In liturgical matters this is especially true. Anything that has survived repeated reformation, translation and up-dating warrants special attention. Why has this liturgical piece lasted so well?

We see durable liturgy, for example, in some of the “golden oldie” hymns. In spite of the fact that when new hymnals are produced every decade or two, and many hymns are weeded out, and other new ones are planted in their place, these older ones continue to blossom and flourish. A prime example is “Amazing Grace.”

I’d like to nominate another part of Christian worship, however, for the award of Long Lasting Liturgy: the Sursum Corda, (Latin for “upwards the hearts,” usually translated “Lift up your hearts”).

The Sursum Corda is included in the brief three-fold exchange between the presiding minister and congregation that precedes the Eucharistic prayer, the Great Thanksgiving. In the Book of Common Worship (1993), it reads:
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

The Sursum Corda dates back at least to the third century where it is found in the writings of Hippolytus of Rome and has been in constant use ever since. It even survived the Protestant Reformation when all sorts of liturgy considered unbiblical was being relegated to the trash heap. When the dust of the Reformation settled, the Sursum Corda would be kept in one form or another by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer. Furthermore, it has been used by Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches through the centuries.

The Sursum Corda helps us see the spiritual dimension of the Lord’s Supper. While we think of the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament, it’s not so much that he comes down to us, but that we “lift our hearts” to the Christ enthroned in heaven.

The Sursum Corda, therefore, summons us to a realm above and beyond squabbling about how, when and where Christ is present in the Supper. Lifted by the Holy Spirit, we are open to encountering the risen and ascended Christ in a spiritual rather than material, or worldly, way. The elements and the actions are “signs” or pointers toward that encounter, rather than its culmination.

The last two lines, the invitation by the presider to give thanks, and the congregational reply of assent have a particular relevance. The congregational response is the people’s permission to the presider to offer a prayer on their behalf, in which they gladly will join. It is as though their “amen” were given in advance, that they were agreeing with the prayer about to be verbalized and vocalized by the presiding minister.

Furthermore, these statements and responses speak of a commitment on part of the people to pay attention, for this relatively lengthy prayer at the Lord’s Table is their prayer, not something belonging to the presider.

Understanding this, it’s not surprising that the Sursum Corda has been around for so long. It’s a sure thing, too, that it will be lifting the sights of our prayers for generations to come as God’s people approach the Lord’s Table.

Do you use the Sursum Corda in your church?

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