When it’s time to begin the Communion Prayers, our liturgy begins with a dialogue usually called The Sursum Corda, which is Latin for “Lift up your hearts,” since that’s the first line of the dialogue.

Except it isn’t anymore, is it?

Celebrant: The Lord be with you.
People: And with your spirit.

Yeah, we actually preface the preface dialogue with this salutation.  It’s interesting to note that this is not how it’s always been.  The classical Prayer Books barely ever use that exchange; the preface of the Communion prayers is not one of those places.  It is there in the Roman Rite, and that’s one reason why it’s in our modern liturgies too: a move to return toward general Western liturgical practice.

Another reason for bringing back that salutary exchange is a functional issue: the modern liturgy has a lot of starting and stopping leading up to this point, and a new “start” is needed.  The confession and absolution ended with the Peace, which is often a huge interruption to the liturgy.  Announcements often take place there, which is an interruption to the liturgy.  The offertory is often drawn out with music and the presentation of the elements and all that… the interaction between priest & people in a worship-minded context is all but lost.  “The Lord be with you…” is practically needed to “restart” the worship service at this point.

Classically, the offering would be taken, then the Prayers of the People, Confession, and Absolution followed.  Then the Comfortable Words were read, after which the Priest shall proceed saying, Lift up your hearts.  There was a direct link from the comfort of divine forgiveness to the Communion: “You are fully pardoned and forgiven and Christ, so lift up your hearts and let us give thanks…!”  That context is lost in the modern arrangement of the liturgy.

Celebrant: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.

This, the actual sursum corda, is where the eucharist, or Great Thanksgiving, begins.  We lift our hearts to God, pursuing a sort of ascent from earthly to heavenly matters.  The ministry of the Word has done its work and the ministry of the Altar, or Table, is setting in.

Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right to give him thanks and praise.

Initially, I was heartbroken when the final BCP text was released, and this was the last response from the people.  Clasically that line read “It is meet and right so to do” and our draft liturgies for most of the past few years read “It is just and right so to do“, which I thought was an excellent modernization of the traditional text.  Why did this matter to me?

It is just and right so to do. / It is right to give him thanks and praise.

The message is the same but the emphasis is reversed.  The old way emphasized the properness, fittingness, rightness, that we ought to give thanks to God.  The new way emphasizes the thanks and praise we are to offer.  Look at what the priest says next:

It is right, our duty, and our joy, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator and heaven and earth…

There we see the rightness of giving thanks to God spelled out clearly.  So between the priest’s two lines (let us give thanks and it is right) the whole message is present.  What falls to the people is to repeat and reinforce one or other part of that whole; the old way emphasized what the priest was about to say next; the new way emphasizes what the priest just said.  In that light, my initial sense of indignation over the last-minute change has been somewhat ameliorated.  In the 1979 Prayer Book, the whole section almost completely lost the “rightness” aspect of giving thanks to God, leaving only joy and love – which is still biblical, but incomplete, as worship is not just invited but commanded in the Scriptures.

Anyway, all this is just the beginning, what follows next is the Proper Preface, which is basically a sentence of purpose – a reason why we should give thanks to God.  The classical Prayer Book tradition had just a few Prefaces for certain holidays, and most of the year would skip it, but modern liturgies have promulgated ever-larger collections of Prefaces that may be used.  We’ll look at those next week, but I mention them now because they complete the thought that is begun here.

4 thoughts on “The Sursum Corda

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