One Sunday after worship, in which communion was served, fellow worshipers were talking in the hallway. A member of the church approached me and said, “That language we use in worship during communion, I remember saying it when I was a boy in the Catholic Church.” I searched his face for any signs of distress or alarm. Neither was evident. Rather, he was excited about noticing this liturgical language in a new way. I told him it is called the sursum corda (lift up your hearts), and we chatted about it and the recollections of his youth. As a pastor in a Presbyterian Church, I have learned that finding similarities in Presbyterian worship with Roman Catholic worship is a warning flag for some people. When we attend worship, it can be unsettling to look for one thing but find another. We look for what we have known and what is familiar to us. This is especially true when we attend the worship of churches within the same liturgical and theological tradition, or in the same denomination. Even members of church traditions without fixed forms of worship (Presbyterian churches are guided by principles of worship) often expect some semblance of uniformity, particularly if they have strong convictions about worship. There is the current trend in many churches to mix it up a bit, to try to be offbeat, in order to capitalize on the disturbance it causes. More non-Christians will hear the gospel and be attracted to a current and relevant church—so the argument goes. But most of those who come to the church I serve want a form of worship rooted in the Word of God and well placed within historical Christian worship. Since our church is Presbyterian there are certain assumptions people have for our worship, and when there is something that does not fit those assumptions, like the sursum corda, it can be unsettling to say the least.

The sursum corda is Latin, and because it is a Latin phrase, many Protestants immediately suspect that it is Roman Catholic. The Catholic Tridentine Mass uses Latin, and the post-Vatican II Mass still retains many Latin words. Presbyterian churches, however, have largely abided by the principle of the Protestant Reformation to use vernacular language in worship so everyone can participate in the service and do so intelligently. Presbyterians have removed all foreign language phrases from their worship, and conservative Presbyterian churches like our own have maintained this practice. Of course the sursum corda can be translated into the language of the people and used, intelligently, by all. Besides being the first words of the Latin phrase, the sursum corda is also the technical name for the litany between the pastor and the congregation which prefaces the Eucharistic prayer. It has been used for centuries by many different kinds of churches in their worship. The response is as follows:

Pastor: Lift up your hearts.
Congregation: We lift them up to the Lord.
Pastor: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
Congregation: It is right to give Him thanks and praise.

This response then leads immediately into the prayer of thanksgiving. It is not unusual to have Latin and Greek names of elements of worship in Presbyterian churches. To wit, we have names like the Gloria Patri, the Doxology, and many of the tunes we use for our hymns have non-English names, such as Mit Freuden Zart (the tune for All Praise to God, Who Reigns Above) and Laudate Dominum (the tune for Sing Praise to the Lord!). Along these lines, the words sursum corda can be used in reference to a part of worship without using that phrase in worship.

Latin nomenclature is one thing, usage is another. There is still the abiding concern that the sursum corda is Roman Catholic because it is used in the Mass. It is the purpose of this essay to rapidly survey the principal liturgies of Eastern and Western Christianity, including early Reformed liturgies, to see how broadly the sursum corda has been used in worship. For this survey, two easily accessible resources have been used. The first is Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed by Jasper and Cuming.[1] The other is Liturgies of the Western Church compiled by Bard Thompson.[2] These collections are of great help for understanding the place of the sursum corda in Christian worship.

Although there is the Jewish background, Christian worship did come into its own. Jasper and Cuming suggest that the early church felt a need to distance its worship from actual Jewish prayers. However, the style, structure, and concepts of Jewish prayers continued to exert an influence on Christian worship.[3] This is true for the sursum corda, as will be explained below. As far as scholars can discern, there were no fixed written prayers for the communion service in the first two hundred years of Christianity. Jasper and Cuming conclude that the early church was more regional, and the communion prayers were at the discretion of the local bishops, although there was the expectation that certain elements from the New Testament accounts of the Lord’s Supper would be included, such as the words of institution, the prayer of thanksgiving, and the anamnesis (remembering).[4] By the end of the fourth century, the standardization of communion liturgies and prayers of thanksgiving is well attested.[5]

Scholars have grouped the various early communion liturgies into five or six families.[6] For the purposes of this essay, five families of liturgies will be reviewed for their use of the sursum corda; the East Syrian, the West Syrian, the Alexandrian, the Roman and North African, and the Gallican and Mozarabic. These different groups of liturgies have their own characteristics even though, over the course of time, they influenced each other.

The East Syrian family of communion liturgies is one of the oldest. These intrinsically related forms of worship originated in the eastern region of the Roman Empire. In this area was the city of Edessa, one of the earliest centers of Christianity.[7] Jasper and Cuming call attention to the strong presence of Semitic style and expressions in this family, with some of the liturgies composed in the Semitic dialect of Syriac.[8] One notable form of worship within this genus is the Liturgy of Addai and Mari, originating in Edessa. On the whole, it shows the sources of an ancient form of worship, although changes were made over the years.[9] The sursum corda from the sixth-century version of the Liturgy of Addai and Mari is below:

Celebrant: Up with your minds.
Congregation: They are with you, O God.[10]

In spite of the strong Jewish characteristic of the sursum corda in the service of Addai and Mari, it bears a Greek influence as well with the use of “minds” instead of “hearts.”

Antioch was the ancient center of the West Syrian family of rites of worship. The worship that arose in this region had a widespread influence on many liturgies in other areas, such as the Alexandrian and East Syrian. Furthermore, the West Syrian churches experienced the great Christological debates focused on Arius and Monophysitism. Not only did these controversies divide the churches, they affected their worship.[11] The West Syrian family includes the liturgies of St. James in Jerusalem and The Third Anaphora of St. Peter (also called the Sharar). The style of this family of liturgy also lies behind the rite of John Chrysostom, which became the principal form of the Byzantine liturgy. One interesting feature that shows up in the West Syrian liturgies is a Hellenistic, as well as Semitic, influence on the sursum corda. The sursum corda for the liturgy of St. James begins with the response:

Celebrant: Let us lift up our mind and our hearts.
Congregation: We have them with the Lord.[12]

In Hellenistic thinking, the νους (nous, mind) was considered the center of one’s being in contrast to the Jewish metaphor of the heart.[13] The Third Anaphora of St. Peter has this version of the sursum corda:

Celebrant: Let our minds ever be lifted up to heaven, and all our hearts in purity.
Congregation: To you, Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, O king glorious and holy for ever.

In the fourth century, John Chrysostom produced his liturgy relying on those of the Apostolic Constitutions, St. Basil, St. James, and the Eucharistic prayer of the Twelve Apostles.[14] Below is Chrysostom’s version of the sursum corda:

Celebrant: Let us lift up our hearts.
Congregation: We have them with the Lord.

Chrysostom’s sursum corda deletes the Greek νους (nous, mind) and keeps the Semitic metaphor (heart), making the response simpler.

Similar characteristics are found in another ancient group of liturgies, the Alexandrian. Scholars have tentatively concluded that the sources for this group of liturgies are as ancient as those for the East Syrian forms of worship.[15] One of the distinct characteristics of the Alexandrian family is its inclusion of the intercessions after the preface in the Eucharistic prayer.[16] The liturgies of St Mark and the Egyptian St Basil stand out in the Alexandrian family. The liturgy of St. Mark includes the sursum corda before the prayer of thanksgiving, but it leaves out the verb, “lift.” Instead it has the following phraseology:

Celebrant: Up with your hearts.
Congregation: We have them with the Lord.[17]

The Egyptian version of the liturgy of St. Basil is so named because it may have come from the Cappadocian Church Father, Basil, who lived in Egypt for a time. It definitely bears the characteristics of the Alexandrian family, but it also has the structure of the West Syrian family of liturgies. We are reminded again of the influence of one liturgical family upon another. The liturgy of St. Basil has the sursum corda in the usual location at the beginning of the prayer of thanksgiving and in the following form:

Celebrant: Let us lift up our hearts.
Congregation: We have them with the Lord.

It is universally agreed that the Egyptian St. Basil liturgy is a primary source for the Byzantine liturgy of St. Basil, and Cuming argues that it also helped shape the liturgy of St. James in Jerusalem, even more so than the West Syrian.[18]

Since North Africa was one of the most Roman of Rome’s provinces, it is easy to understand its close relationship to the Roman family of liturgy. The liturgy in the African churches was essentially an independent variant of the Roman liturgy.[19] It is in this family that we find the earliest known liturgical document containing the sursum corda, Hippolytus’s prayer, which was written around the year 215. The text is below:

Celebrant: Up with your hearts.
Congregation: We have (them) with the Lord.[20]

The Roman Mass developed separately from Hippolytus. Aside from the introductory dialogue and the concluding doxology, there is nothing else in it from Hippolytus’s liturgy.[21] The Roman Canon seems to have evolved from a number of independent prayers, with many additions coming later. The sursum corda was most likely part of the earliest form of the Roman service and presumably came from Hippolytus’s liturgy.[22] Later, when the Mass was officially organized by the papal court in the seventh century, the sursum corda was revised with the more complete line, “Lift up your hearts.”[23]

Although Rome became the dominant church in the West, there were other liturgical traditions in Europe. Two of them are the Gallican and Mozarabic liturgies. By the sixth century, they were well established in the areas of modern France and Spain. These were non-Roman, Latin rites that had been influenced by some of the liturgies of the Eastern Churches.[24] Yet they had their own form and phrases and so are classified as a distinct family. The Gallican order of worship includes the sursum corda, as does the Mozarabic liturgy. The latter developed in Spain, probably with influences from Constantinople. This rite uses the following sequence for the sursum corda:

Celebrant: Up with your hearts.
Congregation: Let us lift them to the Lord.[25]

Both the Gallican and the Mozarabic liturgies place the sursum corda immediately before the Eucharistic prayer.

This brings us to the use of the sursum corda in the Protestant Reformation. One of the principal aims of Protestant leaders like Luther, Bucer, Calvin, Knox, and Cranmer was to reform Christian worship. As they saw it, such worship had become encrusted with practices and theology not derived from Scripture. Therefore, they began to restore the worship of the church according to the Word of God. Significant changes were made relative to the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. Although some elements were excised and thrown to the side, the sursum corda was not one of these (at least for the initial Lutheran and Reformed liturgies). At the same time, the sursum corda did undergo a change in how it was used. Martin Luther, in his Formula Missae of 1523 retained the sursum corda in its traditional place as the preface to the Eucharistic prayer with this wording:

Celebrant: Lift up your hearts.
Congregation: Let us lift them to the Lord.[26]

However, in his German Mass of 1526, he removed the sursum corda from its place as the preface to the prayer of thanksgiving and moved it to the opening of his prayer of intercession at the beginning of the communion service. In doing so, he truncated it and made it an exhortation, thus eliminating the response of the people. Luther’s new use of the sursum corda was, “Lift up your hearts to God to pray with me the Lord’s Prayer.”[27] This relocation of the sursum corda was significant, but Luther continued to use it as an expression of prayerful trust to God.

The Reformed liturgies of Bucer, Calvin and Knox also retained the first line of the sursum corda. Bucer’s Strasbourg liturgy used it in one of his prayers in his suggested forms for the communion liturgy. This prayer combined the prayer of intercession and Eucharistic prayer but instead of making it an exhortation to prayer, like Luther, Bucer put it at the end of the prayer as the goal of being set free from sin by Jesus Christ. Thus Bucer’s line is, “To the end that, by all means, we as thine obedient children may ever lift our hearts and souls unto thee in true childlike trust.”[28] Calvin also used the first line of the sursum corda, but, unlike Luther and Bucer, he used it in his exhortation to the congregation, focused on the words of institution in the communion service. After commenting on Jesus’s institution of the meal, the Genevan order says, “Therefore, lift up your hearts on high, seeking the heavenly things in heaven, where Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father; and do not fix your eyes on the visible signs which are corrupted through usage.”[29] For Calvin, the sursum corda provided the proper orientation for the celebration of the sacrament. Calvin’s influence can be seen in John Knox’s The Forme of Prayers, published in 1556. Knox follows Calvin in using the sursum corda to orient the congregation’s faith from the earthly elements to Christ himself, whose body is seated at the right hand of God. The Forme of Prayers says, “Lift up our minds by faith above all things worldly and sensible, and thereby to enter into heaven, that we may find, and receive Christ.”[30] Interestingly, Knox places the sursum corda at the end of his exhortation, just before his prayer of thanksgiving. Along the same lines, in 1586, some of the English Puritans produced the Middleburg Liturgy, which was similar to John Knox’s The Forme of Prayers, making use of the sursum corda in the same way.[31]

Our brisk overview of the use of the sursum corda in the liturgies of the church suffices to show that it has found a place in most Christian liturgical traditions, including the Reformed. Historical time and location of the liturgies have certainly played their part in shaping the variations of the sursum corda. Most obviously, the word used to refer to the center of the person, whether it be “mind” or “heart,” changed depending on Semitic or Greek influence. During the Reformation, concern for how the church understood its worship also created variety in how the sursum corda was used. However, even when there was conscientious reform in the church, the sursum corda was retained. Only later, with the rise of new movements in the Protestant churches (namely Puritan, Nonconformist, and revivalistic) would the sursum corda begin to disappear from the church’s liturgy. Today some of the descendants of early Protestant worship have a renewed interest in the historical worship of the church and the place of the sursum corda in liturgy. One example of this can be found in the suggested form for the communion exhortation in the Directory for the Public Worship of God of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.[32] As churches give due consideration to their liturgy, hopefully they will recognize the catholic use of the sursum corda and not dismiss it out of hand.


[1] Ronald C. D. Jasper and G. J. Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990).

[2] Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980).

[3] Jasper and Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, 7.

[4] Ibid., 20–33. These pages refer to the Didache and Justin Martyr as two of the earliest examples of writings listing elements that should be included in the communion service without providing specific prayers of thanksgiving for the communion meal. Even Hippolytus, who provides a complete Eucharistic prayer for communion, allows for the bishop to use his own words or a fixed form.

[5] Ibid., 13. For further reading, see Frank C. Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 115–16. Senn believes Diocletian’s organization of the regions of the Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century, and Constantine’s Edict of Milan, indirectly contributed to the standardization of Christian liturgy.

[6] Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (repr. 1960, Continuum: London, 2001), 156. Dix identifies six, primary, standardized communion liturgies; Frank Senn discusses five, Christian Liturgy, 115ff; Jasper and Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, throughout their work, indicate the complexity of the influence of one liturgical region on another.

[7] Jasper and Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, 39.

[8] Ibid., 39.

[9] Ibid., 39.

[10] Ibid., 42.

[11] Senn, Christian Liturgy, 119.

[12] Jasper and Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, 90.

[13] Senn, Christian Liturgy, 122–23.

[14] Jasper and Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, 129.

[15] Ibid., 67.

[16] Senn, Christian Liturgy, 134.

[17] Jasper and Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, 59.

[18] G. J. Cuming, “Egyptian Elements in the Jerusalem Liturgy,” Journal of Theological Studies 25:1 (1974): 117–24.

[19] Senn, Christian Liturgy, 137.

[20] Jasper and Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, 32–34.

[21] Senn, Christian Liturgy, 140.

[22] Ibid., 159.

[23] Ibid., 168-70.

[24] Ibid., 147.

[25] Jasper and Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, 152.

[26] Ibid., 189, 192–93.

[27] Ibid., 196.

[28] Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church, 173.

[29] Ibid., 223.

[30] Ibid., 303.

[31] Ibid., 337.

[32] The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, PA: Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2011), 153.

Jeffrey B. Wilson is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Southfield, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, October 2014.

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Ordained Servant: October 2014

Knox 500

Also in this issue

John Knox and the Reformation of Worship[1]

How to Pray at Prayer Meetings: Some Practical Suggestions

The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Series Review (Part Four)

Delighting in the Law of the Lord

Holy Sonnet XV

Do Presbyterians Lack Joy?

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