Foundations: Preface and Proper Preface

By William M. Cwirla
I once went to a play that featured a Lord's Supper scene. The actor playing the pastor said, "The Lord be with you," and a dozen people in the audience immediately responded, "And with your spirit." Yes, there are many of us who could probably recite such things in our sleep.
The service of the Sacrament begins between the presider and the people with a brief dialogue that is among the oldest elements of the liturgy. There is evidence of these phrases going back to 150 AD, the middle-second century of Christianity! In the Preface, the presider speaks words of blessing and exhortation to the people, and the people respond.
I'm going to give you both the Latin and English here, so you can see what's actually being said and not said.
Dominus vobiscum.                                         Et cum spiritu tuo.
The Lord be with you.                                      And with your spirit.
 
Sursum corda.                                        Habemus ad Dominum.
Lift up your hearts.                                          We lift them up to the Lord.
 
Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro.           Dignum et iustum est.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.        It is good and right so to do.
What do these words mean and why do we say them? Let's deal with them in pairs.  

The Lord be with you / And with your spirit.

This is an act of blessing between the presider and people. In the book of Ruth, this is how Israelites greeted each other in the fields (Ruth 2:4). Paul’s second letter to Timothy ends with this blessing: "The Lord be with your spirit" (2 Timothy 4:22). The gist of it goes something like this: "The Lord is with you as you prepare to receive His gifts" and "He is with your spirit as you prepare to give them out."
The response "And also with you" can be more easily misconstrued since it sounds more like a greeting between friends. It doesn't necessarily reflect the true meaning behind this interchange.

Lift up your hearts / We lift them up to the Lord.

You don't need to know a lot of Latin to see that there is no lifting up of anything. Church is not Planet Fitness. The Latin text just says: "Hearts up." And the response is: "We lift them to the Lord." "Up" refers to "from above," the place of our baptismal birth and the place from which the gifts of God come to us here below. There is no lifting of our hearts, or anything else, up to heaven; heaven comes down to us. If our hearts are oriented to the Lord above, it's because He has turned our hearts toward Him in faith.
"Hearts up" may be a bit too abbreviated for most people to understand. What would I suggest? Something like this: "Let your hearts be up" / "We have them to the Lord." By the way, the heart is not the place of your emotions but the core of your whole being. It's where faith and Christ reside. The whole idea is that we need to be turned to the Lord in faith in order to receive His gifts. No lifting on our part. Jesus did the heavy lifting on the Cross; we are on the receiving end.

Let us give thanks…. / It is good and right so to do.

The first sentence poses no problem: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. One of the names of the Lord's Supper is "Eucharist," which means "to give thanks" in Greek.
The response is a bit ambiguous. "It is good and right so to do." That’s one way of saying it. But another way would be: "Worthy and righteous is He." Who's He? The Lord to whom we are giving thanks! I like this because it takes the focus off of our doing and puts it onto the Lord where it belongs. Remember that it's the Lord who makes us worthy and righteous to pray.
This exchange then leads to the Proper Preface, a prayer of thanksgiving to the Father for the work of the Son. It is called "proper" because it is appropriate to the season, festival or feast day. For example, here is the Proper Preface for Pentecost:
It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who ascended above the heavens and, sitting at Your right hand, poured out on this day the promised Holy Spirit on His chosen disciples. For all this the whole earth rejoices with exceeding joy…
The prayer takes note of the ascension of Christ ten days before and His ongoing session at the right hand of the Father, from where He breathed out His Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost. Each season or major feast day has a specific sentence. Listen for it carefully the next time you are in church.
The Proper Preface concludes with one of my favorite liturgical phrases: "Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying…" This reminds us that the Church is much bigger than any group we can see or count. When we are gathered in the liturgy, even a congregation as of two or three, Christ is with us as He promised, and not only Him, but also the angels and archangels, and the whole company of heaven including all the saints who have gone before us and our loved ones who have died in the Lord—more worshippers than the ushers can count.
The Preface Prayers leads immediately to the Sanctus, the great "Holy, Holy, Holy," hymn of the cherubim, one of the five pillars of the liturgy, but that will have to wait for next time.
Until then, the Lord be with you.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California, as well as a president emeritus of Higher Things.

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