“The next exclamation of the celebrant, ‘let us lift up our hearts,’ we find in no other service–it belongs exclusively to the divine liturgy [i.e., the Holy Eucharist]. For this exclamation is not simply a call to a certain lofty disposition…it is an affirmation that the eucharist is accomplished not on earth but in heaven…We already know that this ascent to heaven began with the very beginning of the liturgy with our very entrance and ‘assembly as the Church,’ when our true life was ‘hid with Christ in God.’…We can lift our hearts ‘on high’ because this ‘on high,’ this heaven is within us and among us, because it has been returned, restored to us as our real homeland of the heart’s desire, to which we returned after an agonizing exile, for which we have always groaned with homesickness, and through the memory of which all creation lives. If we speak of the earthly, of ourselves, of the Church in categories of ascent, then we speak of the heavenly, of God, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit in categories of descent. But we are saying the same thing: we speak of heaven on earth, of heaven having transfigured the earth, and of the earth as having accepted heaven as the ultimate truth about itself.” Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), pp. 168-169.
This beautiful reflection on words we pray at every celebration of the Eucharist comes from a chapter of Schmeeman’s work entitled “The Sacrament of Anaphora,” taking its title from a Greek word that means offering, more specifically that which is carried up in sacrifice. Anaphora is a standard word for the Eucharistic Prayer, the Great Offering, by which God’s People are united to Christ’s one offering of himself. It is closely tied with the Johannine notion of Christ being “lifted up” to draw all people to himself.
Language about ascending and descending could be used to suggest a kind of otherworldliness. Schmeeman’s account avoids this pitfall, as heaven and earth are in fact united in a dynamic, transformative manner. Ultimately, this has much to do with the arrival of God’s future in the here and now, for Christ is both Alpha and Omega, the first and the last. It might, furthermore, be tied to the vision of sovereign grace that pervades the Our Father, wherein we implore God to reign on earth as in heaven. Thus, heaven transfigures the earth, even as earth finds in heaven the object of its longing and accepts heaven as its ultimate truth. Every celebration of the Eucharist is at once the action of the Holy Spirit and the action of God’s People. In the very act of celebrating, the mystery of Incarnation is made present and we are drawn more deeply into Christ.
When we hear these simple words “Lift up our hearts,” how well do we pay attention to the Advent and merciful reign of the Lord? For it is here that heaven breaks out among us in order to transfigure our frail and sinful flesh.