Our memories of the past make us who we are in the present, and shape who we hope or expect to be in the future.
God has endowed us with different kinds of memory. Some memories are implicit, functioning outside of our conscious awareness. Procedural memory, for example, allows us to learn to perform tasks automatically without having to think about them. Emotional memory primes us to respond quickly to new and possibly threatening situations on the basis of past experience.
What we usually describe as “memory,” however, is explicit, as with our knowledge of factual information. And experiences: in autobiographical memory, we consciously recall specific episodes from our lives. As children develop in their use of language, these episodes gradually become the elements of a life story.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus tells his disciples, as he gives them the broken bread and a cup of wine. He’s not asking them to engage in an abstract exercise of memory; he’s asking them to remember in an explicitly autobiographical way, to actively bring back to mind both the Passover supper they ate together and its new meaning. Remind yourself of what happened this night, and what difference it makes. This is your story.
Is it our story?
After all, we weren’t there. We can’t turn to one another and say, “Hey, remember when Jesus said to you…” Can such a remembrance be as meaningful?
As we saw in a recent post, Moses could stand in front of the assembled Israelites and “remind” them of how God spoke to them directly from the mountain, even though it had actually been people of a previous generation (Deut 5:1-5). He didn’t tell them the story of their ancestors and then give them a pithy “moral”; instead, he insisted that the story was in fact theirs, as if they had been there bodily themselves.
Do this in remembrance of me. Again, there are different ways to remember, different uses of memory. Do you remember the name of your first grade teacher? That kind of recall is different than reliving the moment she comforted you after you fell on the playground. Do you remember the make and model of your first car? Of course. But that’s not the same as retelling the story of the first time you scratched the paint or dented the fender.
Remembering the mere fact of Jesus’ death on our behalf is not yet autobiographical. True, we weren’t there. But with the help of the Spirit of the crucified one, and the shared imagination of a committed community, we can enter the story as if it were our own.
Because, actually, it is.