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Words to do with remembering occur frequently in the celebration of Mass, especially during the Eucharistic Prayer: “Do this in memory of me”, “We celebrate this memorial”, “We recall his passion, his resurrection”, “Calling to mind the death your Son endured”.
The Greek word related to remembering, anamnesis, sounds like the familiar word “amnesia” and in fact comes from the same derivation. I used to say that it meant “to remember” until a Greek scholar pointed out that a more accurate translation is “not to forget”.
When we celebrate Mass, we gather to hear our foundational story – the story of Jesus, the New Covenant – so that we will not forget it. Our story is recounted in the readings from scripture, in the homily, in the recitation of the Creed and in the Eucharistic Prayer which always includes the “institution narrative”, the words and actions of Christ at supper with his disciples on the night before his suffering and death.
These stories, however, are not a nostalgia trip back to the past like returned servicemen relating war stories on Anzac Day or people talking of how life was “in the good old days”. The Jewish people in celebrating Passover tell their foundational stories of the Covenant, Passover and Exodus in a way that actualises these past events in the present. Our retelling of the events of the paschal mystery – Christ’s life, death and resurrection – works the same way. By calling them to mind, we bring these past events into the present so that we become part of the story and participate in it.
This is well illustrated in the text of the Exultet, that great Easter Vigil Proclamation which tells the story of our salvation: “This is the night when you freed the people of Israel”, “This is the night when Jesus rose triumphant from the grave”.
For Christians, though, time goes beyond the past and the present; there is a third dimension. We live in the period between Christ’s incarnation and his return in glory. We look to the past, live in the present and “wait in hope for the coming of the kingdom”. This aspect is reflected in many prayers of the liturgy, for example: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”, “The God who is, who was and who is to come”, “Christ yesterday, today, and forever”.
Some people might know the Australian children’s story “Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge” by Mem Fox. This is a lovely parable of the eucharist as memorial. Wilfred helps his 96-year-old neighbour, Miss Nancy, recover the memory she has lost by collecting for her a basketful of memories – seashells, a treasured football, his own grandfather’s war medals, a puppet on a string and a fresh, warm egg from under a hen. These simple, everyday objects help Miss Nancy recall events and people from the past. Her missing memory is found and her lost identity is restored.
In a not dissimilar way, the liturgy makes use of simple, everyday objects like bread, wine, water and oil to help us recall our faith story and to remind us of who we are and always will be – the body of Christ, blessed, broken and shared for the life of the world.