holy cross sermon for the seventeenth sunday after pentecost, year a, october 5, 2014

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Last week we discussed the Secret, the short, silent prayer that brings the offertory to its conclusion. Which brings us to the short dialogue between the celebrant and the congregation that inaugurates the principle action of the mass, the great sacrificial action itself. This short dialogue is called the Sursum Corda – Latin for “lift up your hearts.” It will be familiar to you, since it’s a part of every mass:

The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.
It is meet and right so to do.

You can probably predict what I am going to say next: this part of the mass is very ancient. Its true, and perhaps more so for this part of the mass than for most of the others. The Sursum Corda is there, almost verbatim, in one of the most ancient Christian liturgical texts that has come down to us, that found in the writings of St. Hippolytus, who was born around the year 170 AD, in the first generations of Christians after the apostles.

The dialogue is there too in all of the liturgies of the churches of the Christian East, although among them it is often elaborated beyond the more ancient and straightforward form that we have in the western, Latin church. For example, in the West Syrian liturgy, called the Divine Liturgy of St. James, instead of saying “Let us give thanks unto our Lord God,” the celebrant says, “Let us say thanks to the Lord with fear, and adore Him with trembling,” (Jungmann, vol. 2 p. 113).

One peculiarity of this particular element of the mass is that, while it begins with the familiar mutual greeting between the celebrant and congregation – “The Lord be with you” / “And with thy spirit” – the celebrant does not turn around to face the people, as he is directed to do when this ritual greeting is exchanged at other times. We might wonder why.

I confess that, after we restored the altar last year here at Holy Cross, I did not turn around to face the congregation at this point because I wanted to look at the book, at the musical notes that I was supposed to be singing – in order to make sure I sang them properly. This not-turning-around at this point is a departure from the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer of 1979, which says, just before the Sursum Corda, “The people remain standing. The Celebrant… faces them and sings…” “The Lord be with you,” etc.

But the more ancient books explicitly direct the celebrant NOT to turn around at the Sursum Corda, as he would otherwise do when saying “The Lord be with you,” but instead to continue facing the altar. The question naturally arises as to why this might be the case. Fr. Jungmann points to the extreme antiquity of this exchange, and to “the more delicate sense of form which ancient culture(s) possessed, for once the sacred action is inaugurated, once the God-ward activity [of the mass] has begun, it would be improper to turn away,” (p. 112).

In other words, the mass up to this point has been, at least partly, oriented toward us. We have been hearing the word of God read and expounded. We have been reciting the creed, interceding, and confessing our sins. But now the gifts have been arranged on the altar as a sacrifice, and there is little left to do but to offer them to God. And so we all – celebrant and congregation – face the Lord together for the great and central prayer of sacrifice, of which the Sursum Corda is the beginning.

But let us consider what we are saying. As I have noted, the Sursum Corda begins in a familiar way, with the greeting often repeated in the mass and elsewhere in the official prayers of the Church: “The Lord be with you” / “And with thy spirit.” But then, instead of saying “Let us pray,” as the priest does elsewhere, here he says, “Lift up your hearts” – Sursum Corda, in Latin. And the people respond, “We lift them up unto the Lord.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the early 200’s AD, sees in these words “an expression of the mood in which the Christian should properly begin every prayer: every fleshly and worldly thought shout be suppressed, and the mind [i.e. the heart] bent solely upon the Lord,” (Jungmann, p. 110). Fr. Jungmann cites Colossians 3, where Paul says that we ought to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Such indeed is the fundamental attitude of all prayer, a heavenward aspiration, and perhaps here more than anywhere else, at the beginning of the archetypical Christian prayer, the canon of the mass. That is, here, more than anywhere else, we are aspiring to be with Christ, united with him, in COMMUNION with him, in his sacrifice on the cross, which is being re-presented here on the altar. Nothing earthly is, in the final analysis, compatible with this aspiration to be with the Lord, where he is. In the words of the great cherubic hymn, which I quoted last week: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, / and with fear and trembling stand. / PONDER NOTHING EARTHLY MINDED, / For with blessings in his hand, / Christ our God to earth descendeth, / Our full homage to demand.”

Which brings me to another reason the celebrant does not merely say, “Let us pray,” as he does at other times after “The Lord be with you,” / “And with thy spirit,” – and that is that what we are embarking upon here is no mere prayer. It is the great and central act of Christian life, a recapitulation of Calvary itself. Hence the exhortation: “Let us give THANKS unto our Lord God.” Recall that the Greek word for “thanks” is “Eucharist.” We are here giving Eucharist to our Lord God, which is “meet and right so to do” – in Latin, “dignum et iustum est,” – “dignum” from which we get the word “dignity,” – and “iustum” from which we get the word “justice.” In other words, it is proper, fitting, and just, that we should offer Eucharist – thanks – to God. “It is meet and right so to do.”

Why is it meet and right? And how do we know? In the first chapter of Romans, Paul identifies one of the fundamental problems with humanity as being our failure to recognize God, to render him honor, and to give him thanks. Paul says:

“…for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever!” (Romans 1.21ff)

But it all begins with our failure to honor God, and to render him thanks. And this is what is turned on its head on the cross, what is undone and set right, and this is the source of the cross’s superlative dignity and justice. On the cross, mankind finally renders the honor and thanksgiving to God which God deserves – the total self-surrender of a totally innocent and righteous man, the man Jesus Christ – whom all the sacrifices of the old covenant, all the lambs without blemish and so forth, prefigured.

As you can see, with the Sursum Corda we are getting down to business as Christians, coming to the very heart of the matter, taking the first tremulous steps up the hill of Calvary, and standing on the very threshold of the world’s salvation. In the words of St. John, quoted in the “comfortable words” just before the offertory, we are approaching, at this point in the mass, “the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.”

I conclude with an anecdote about the great Rhineland mystic of the 14th century, Henry Suso. Suso was renowned in his lifetime for singing the Sursum Corda with special feeling when he celebrated mass. When asked why he sang the Sursum Corda with such ferbor, he responded that in the Sursum Corda he felt that “he was calling upon all creatures of heaven and earth and that he felt himself as their precentor in the praise of God…” (Jungmann p. 110).

Therefore: Lift up your hearts. Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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