I recently had the privilege of officiating at the funeral of a rather unconventional saint named Gloria. She was a rough-around-the-edges kind of grandma who exuded a kind of exuberant joy to those who loved her. Her home was an oasis for weary travelers who knew they could stop by any time and find food on the stove and drinks in the fridge. My favorite part of the funeral was when her grandson, Donald, got up and said as much about her. He spoke affectionately and off-the-cuff. It meant a great deal to everyone who came. Honestly, I think Donald’s brief remembrances of his grandmother did more to comfort bereaved family members than anything I said or did in the service.
What is it about the act of remembering that people tend to find so valuable? Obviously, the good feelings we get from fond memories help to offset the pain of loss, but I suspect there is actually much more to it than that.
When we remember something or someone, we saying that we want that thing or person to remain a part of us in some significant way.
For example, Donald sharing memories of his grandma’s hospitality and humor on behalf of his family was a way of saying that they want those same qualities of love and laughter to live on in them. We do this with negative things too, like the Holocaust. The great, resounding refrain that we hear again and again from the lips of Holocaust historians is: “Never again.” When we remember the Holocaust, we are not celebrating its existence, but stating out loud that we want the pain of twelve million lost lives to remain with us, so that future generations of human beings will never know the horror of genocide. This too, is a powerful kind of remembrance.
We’re talking about remembrance today. This is the second in a five-week series on the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the life of the church. Remembrance is the part of this sacrament that we Protestants are most familiar with. We eat bread and drink wine in accordance with Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
This sacrament is obviously a great memorial to Jesus’ love and sacrifice. When we celebrate it, we are saying that we want those same values of Christ-like love and sacrifice to live on in us. But there’s even more to it than that: when we remember Jesus in the sacrament, we are saying that Christ himself lives in us. As we eat the body of Christ, we become the body of Christ; as we drink from the cup, his blood flows in our veins. To put it simply: you are what you eat.
This truth becomes especially pertinent when we consider how ancient humans thought about time. We modern folks have been trained to think of time as a straight line, moving in one direction, from the past to the future. Two fixed points in time can never get closer to one another. Once an event has taken place, we can only get farther and farther away from it. Memory fades and sooner or later, everyone is forgotten while the universe goes on. That’s the modern, linear view of time.
But our ancestors in the ancient world didn’t see time that way. They saw the world operating in cycles: every day, the sun would rise and set; every month, the moon would go through its phases; every year, the four seasons would come around again. Time, for them, was a great big circle. Every time a certain moment in a particular cycle came round again, they thought they were repeating that moment. This is the cyclical view of time.
This way of looking at time is important for us linear, modern folks to understand because it helps us make sense of why certain holidays were so important to ancient people. When our Jewish ancestors would celebrate the Passover, they really believed, on some level, that they were taking part in the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. By taking part in the ceremonial meal, they thought they were joining their ancestors on that journey. (For all you science fiction fans: it’s kind of like time travel.)
This is how Jesus and his disciples would have thought about the Passover meal they were sharing on the night before he died. So, when Jesus starts adding elements to the story, saying “this is my body” and “this is my blood” over the ceremonial bread and wine, it was a big deal. It meant that what was happening through Jesus was as important to history as the Exodus from Egypt.
Later on, as Jesus’ earliest followers started celebrating this remembrance on a weekly basis, they brought with them that cyclical view of time. The truly believed they were joining Jesus and the apostles around the table at the Last Supper. (Again: time travel!)
For them, the Last Supper was not a single event, fading slowly into the distant past, but a recurring one in which Christ is perpetually present. According to the linear view of time, we can only ever get further and further away from Jesus, who lived on earth approximately two thousand years ago. But according to the cyclical view of time, he is ever present: we meet him again and again as we gather around this table in this act of remembrance.
Why is this important? I think it matters today more than ever. You and I live in the age of the Information Superhighway. Infinite bits of data whiz by our heads at all hours of the day or night: news headlines, sports scores, stock prices, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Our culture launches ahead with each new discovery, each new technological innovation. We’re obsessed with “bigger, better, faster, more!” We call it progress. But is it really? But have these fancy, hi-tech toys really done much to improve who we are as human beings? We’ve landed robots on Mars, but have we yet touched down on the surface of our own souls? I’m not so sure.
We have a wealth of information at hand to keep us abreast of what’s happening in the world, but very little wisdom to tell us what it all means. Without that kind of deep guidance, I fear that our rocket ship toward progress might actually leave us falling head first into meaninglessness.
Our ancient ancestors may not have had the kind of scientific knowledge that we moderns do, but they knew about wisdom. I am continually amazed when I read the great spiritual classics like The Dark Night of the Soul and The Cloud of Unknowing and I find their messages just as relevant today as they were when they were first written, hundreds of years ago.
At no time is this truer for me than when I sit down at the table next to Jesus. I hear his words, eat his bread, and drink his wine. And suddenly, I find myself time travelling: looping around to connect again with the One who gives life meaning. Jesus Christ is not a distant memory, fading slowly into the past; he is alive and present with us in his body and blood.
Taking time each week to remember this truth gives us the perspective we need to see the world aright. In the act of sacramental remembrance, we step outside the constant stream of information and feed back repeatedly into this moment around the table with Jesus. We remember once again what Jesus showed and taught us. We remember what life is all about and then step back out into that data stream again, but maybe this time we’ll have the wisdom to see, not just what is happening in the world, but what it all means.
The answer we come up with, as people of faith, to that question of meaning will be fundamentally different from the answer handed to us by (so-called) modern civilization. The challenge Jesus leaves us with is to remember in our souls and bodies where we truly come from, where we are going, and where our allegiance lies.
It’s a difficult challenge, one that we’re sure to fail at in the long term, which is why it’s so important for us to keep coming back regularly and participating as often as possible in this act of remembrance. May this bread and this wine, the body and blood of Christ, nourish you with all the strength you need to make it through this week faithfully… and I’ll see you again next Sunday.