Hearts Lifted Up

“Lift up your hearts!” 

The priest says it every time we celebrate the Eucharist: “Lift up your hearts!” And we answer: “We lift them to the Lord.”

That exchange is one of the oldest dialogues in Christian worship, found in the liturgies of all the apostolic churches. And it’s so short—over so quickly—that we might never stop and think about what it means.

“Lift up your hearts!”

As fleeting as that moment in our liturgy is—and as easily as we might pass the odd phrase over—the fact it has endured so universally throughout the centuries, points to an important truth about what we are gathered for today—what we gather for week after week, day after day. In these Holy Mysteries which we gather to celebrate—the eternal memorial of Christ’s Passion and Death—we encounter Christ in his Resurrection, and he touches the very core of our being, stirring us to lift up our hearts as they’re kindled with love and new life. 

The Church has long seen the 50 days of Easter as a time for mystagogy, a fancy term that means “leading into the mysteries.” At the Great Vigil of Easter we rehearse the drama of salvation history and experience the Mysteries of Baptism and Eucharist, the Sacraments that initiate us into the Body of Christ. And now we are led further into those Sacred Mysteries, reflecting what they mean and how they matter for our lives. This is a season when we are invited to wrestle with the proclamation of Christ and the celebration of his Sacraments as more than just rote rituals or abstract concepts, but as encounters with the Resurrection—encounters with the victory of life and love over sin and death.

And so the Church provides us with opportunities like today, when the readings explore the movement or transformation that happens when we come face-to-face with Resurrection. The Risen Christ doesn’t just stand before us as a distant figure; he reaches in and touches our hearts, leaving them changed and transformed.

Sometimes this transformation takes place quickly and dramatically, like we see happen in our reading from Acts this morning. 

We enter that scene as Peter is concluding his first, great, public proclamation of Christ’s victory over sin and death. And the writer of Acts tells us that when he finished speaking, the crowd who heard him “were cut to the heart.” It’s dramatic language for a dramatic moment. Peter’s words pierce the inner being of his audience, and immediately they ask, “What should we do?” This news—this urgent proclamation that God has done a new thing in Jesus Christ—strikes them to the very core and moves their hearts, stirring up a response of repentance and loving gratitude. We’re told about 3,000 people were baptized that day—and yeah, that could very well be an exaggeration. But even so, it speaks to the tectonic shift that happened: the blazing fire set in the hearts of the people in that crowd when they are touched by the proclamation of Resurrection.

But the transformation of our hearts when we encounter the Risen Christ isn’t always so dramatic. Not all of us experience the dramatic, emotional conversion that some traditions strive for. But that doesn’t mean our hearts aren’t being transformed and set on fire.

In today’s Epistle, Peter is talking to another community. He reminds these people that they have been ransomed from death by Christ. He reminds them that they have encountered the resurrection by being buried and raised with Christ in baptism. And so Peter calls them to “love one another deeply from the heart.” He beckons them to demonstrate the “genuine mutual love” that has been fostered in their hearts by their rebirth in Christ’s Resurrection—by their encounter with the new life of Easter.

This is just as profound a movement as the conversion of those thousands. It’s just as complete an encounter with and manifestation of Christ’s victory over death. But in this case, the love in their hearts—the transformation flowing from the encounter—is juxtaposed with images of seeds, rather than a holy incision piercing suddenly and sharply into their souls. The change here is slower and subtler, unfolding quietly like a seed in the soil. But they have still encountered the resurrection. They have come face-to-face with new life in Christ. And that encounter has moved and transformed their hearts. The resurrection has kindled a unique sort of bond—a new fire of deep mutual love—in their hearts, and Peter is calling them to offer it up.

The kind of encounter with Resurrection that we see in Peter’s two very different audiences today is available to us as well. And our gospel reading today sums up how.

Right on the heels of the empty tomb being discovered, Jesus meets two of his disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. They don’t recognize him immediately as their risen Lord. But Jesus walks them through the Scriptures, proclaiming to them the same message that we hear week after week. He blesses and breaks bread with them just like in the upper room when he shared his Body and Blood. Just like we will today in just a few minutes. And suddenly they understand: this stranger—this unknown neighbor who they welcomed to stay with them—is their crucified Messiah, who has now overcome death. These disciples have come literally face-to-face with Resurrection, and they realize in that moment that their hearts are ablaze, burning within them as their Risen Lord makes himself known. So they lift up their burning hearts in praise of God and continue the refrain, making the Resurrection known to others.

This is how we, as followers of Christ, so many years later, still encounter the Resurrection on an ongoing basis. We encounter the Risen Christ in Word and in Sacrament and in Neighbor. We encounter him when we hear the message of Christ—God’s eternal Word—proclaimed in the words of Scripture. We encounter him when we partake in the Sacraments—those tangible means of his real presence among us. We encounter him when we greet the person sitting beside us, seeking and serving Christ in them and embracing them as Christ himself. That’s when we come face-to-face with the resurrection. And this encounter cannot help but touch our hearts. It can’t help but leave us changed at the very core of our being.

The transformation of heart that we experience in our encounter with Resurrection may not be dramatic like Peter’s speech that cut the crowd to the heart. It may be gradual, like a seed slowly sprouting. So subtle we aren’t conscious of its full impact. But there’s no hierarchy of merit based on how God transforms us. Dramatic conversions don’t win a greater reward than the quiet unfolding of new life in Christ. 

The hope at the core of the faith we profess is not a particular model of transformation or a specific template for the good Christian life. The hope at the heart of our faith is the fact that we are transformed. It’s the hope that Christ is risen and has ushered in new life. It’s the hope that we continue to meet him in Word, Sacrament, and Neighbor—that we are about to meet him face-to-face, in just a few moments, as we celebrate his sacrifice. The hope that binds us together as people of the Resurrection is the hope that each time we meet our Risen Lord, he touches our hearts and leaves them changed. 

Our hearts burn within us as he makes himself known to us. And whether that fire roars quickly and brightly, or smolders and spreads gradually and quietly, our hearts are surely changed by encountering new life. This fire burning within us—this holy heartburn—is at the core of what we celebrate as we gather each week.

That’s why, as we turn to come face-to-face with Christ in the breaking of the bread, we prepare ourselves to be kindled with love in his presence, as we hear the call—“Lift up your hearts!”—and answer: “We lift them to the Lord!”