I wonder if you have come across the special word for remembering ‘anamnesis’. Perhaps it’s all Greek to you, and the word is indeed Greek. Our English word remembrance is not strong enough to explain it properly. ‘Active remembrance’ is a better description. Christians have learnt this idea from the Jews.
Those of you who can recall the early parts of the Old Testament might remember that God told Moses in Exodus 12 that the Passover was to be remembered forever by the people of Israel. God gave precise details on how this remembering should happen. The month of the Passover was to be the first month of the year, so the calendar was involved. Just as the people were told to kill a lamb on the night as they waited for God to pass over their houses in Egypt, people were to kill a lamb each Passover and eat it with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. The bitter herbs are a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. The unleavened bread speaks of the rush to get away once the Lord had passed over, leaving no time for the dough to rise. The festival of unleavened bread was to last for seven days. In these ways, the food of the people was involved in remembrance over an extended period. And so, to this day, the Jews keep Passover and tell the story in their families. As they tell it, they consider that they themselves were rescued from slavery just as their ancestors were. This kind of remembrance, more than just pious thoughts, brings the past vividly into the present where it has an effect on the people, transforming their understanding of themselves and their relationship to God.
The Church does this kind of remembering particularly each Sunday when we celebrate the Last Supper. Unfortunately, we have moved away from remembering in the context of a real meal which would make the memorial even stronger, much more as though we were really there at the time. Here in SL we do not celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist. Instead we take what opportunities we can to participate in other services which vividly recall the past and make it real to us today. During Holy Week, together we processed on Palm Sunday, shouting our Hosannas. We marked the gathering darkness of Holy Week on Good Friday by reading the Gospel of John’s description of Jesus’ arrest, trial and burial. We extinguished the candles to remember how dark that time was. The sim remained set on midnight. On Holy Saturday, we watched as the new fire was lit and chased away the darkness; we listened to the story of salvation and waited for the dawn when we could shout ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen!’ Those shouts of Alleluia continued through Easter Day both here in the cathedral and by the empty tomb. That has been our anamnesis in this season, our entering into remembering as fully as we can. It’s possible to just turn up on Easter Day for the party, but it all becomes more real if we have fully experienced the days before the resurrection.
Remembering is very much the theme of the walk to Emmaus which we have just heard about. Cleopas and his companion, some think it was his wife, were walking a sad seven-mile journey from Jerusalem. Perhaps they talked as they walked, perhaps they were silent, but their minds and hearts were full of the events of the previous three days. Then a stranger joined them who seemed oblivious to the events in Jerusalem. To the two walkers it seemed amazing that anyone could have missed knowing what had happened to Jesus. However, for a bereaved person the cause of their bereavement fills every part of life with pain; they are blind to everything else; they cannot imagine normal life continuing for anyone. Bereaved people often need to talk time and again about the one they have lost. In this stranger, Cleopas and his companion found a willing listener as they poured out their terrible experience in every painful detail right down to the troubling and puzzling news that their Lord’s body had disappeared and some women in their company were having hallucinations.
Once they had said all they needed to and lapsed into silence, the stranger filled the space with other memories. However, these weren’t recent ones; they were the stories of the Jewish ancestors; stories from hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Every one of the stories had some connection with the Messiah who was hoped for. They told of where he would be born, what his character would be, what his actions would be, how his life would end; it was all there for those who would see it. As they later realised, his listeners experienced anamnesis. The stories and prophecies were no longer ancient words in dusty scrolls, something for rabbis to pour over and preach on. The scriptures were no longer closed in terms of meaning. They were open and gloriously alive, vivid and relevant, so much so that Cleopas and his companion later described their response as having their hearts burn within them. Suddenly the reality of all God had been doing and saying from the beginning of time up to their time in history was burnt into their memories indelibly. It meant something to them.
However, the stranger was still a stranger who was offered hospitality as the evening was drawing on and darkness was falling. There was nothing special about the meal they shared. As usual it was accompanied by bread. However, when the stranger broke the bread that simple act brought the recent past, the Thursday of the Last Supper, fully into that house on Sunday night in Emmaus. Suddenly the blindness of bereavement was gone and Cleopas and his companion saw Jesus sitting there, but only briefly because then he was gone. Gone from sight perhaps, but there as real as any solid object for those two disciples. Nothing could erase that moment. It would be with them for life, as would the certainty of the resurrection. Jesus gathered the past of their people together with his life and resurrection to bring a future hope for those disciples and for all who would come after them.
Sometimes, when a person is about to preach, they will be introduced and the congregation will be told that the preacher is going to ‘break open the scriptures’. There are echoes of the Emmaus road journey in that phrase. As he talked to Cleopas and his companion, Jesus broke the seal on the scrolls so that what was locked away in their meaning became plain, real and alive. He also broke a loaf to reveal himself as real and alive. He was no longer locked in a tomb behind a vast stone; he was free, active, alive and making an impact on his disciples and those who would follow him as a result of the witness of the apostles.
It’s my prayer for each of us that when we read scripture alone or in daily prayer together; when we meet in offline or online church Sunday by Sunday; when we experience special services and ordinary services, that we will also experience anamnesis. The past will come vividly into the present and transform us, giving us hope and maturing us spiritually. I pray that our hearts will burn within us and that the flame will never be extinguished.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor