MY CONFESSION dear ones in Christ gathered faithfully here at Emmanuel is that my memory is bad lately. Not for names or faces: I’m having trouble sometimes with the day of the week, the month, or even what year it is. Some of that is the weather here in Virginia in April—winter then summer in 48 hours— but it’s undeniably the long term effect of two years of pandemic. And it’s not just me, there are a lot of studies pointing to this, how the disruption of the rhythm of our lives has disrupted how our brains form and file memories. Even this act for me, right now, preaching on Holy Thursday on zoom—-what year is this? I know it’s 2022 because that’s what my computer screen says, but years from now? It’s all going to roll together.
Memory is a funny thing. In our culture, nostalgia rules. Our culture, our movies, our books, are steeped in nostalgia. Nostalgia is fine—I’m nostalgic at the moment for when the Nationals were World Series contenders—but nostalgia can be a tricky, if not dangerous thing.
Nostalgia is a strange form of memory. Often its something that’s sold to us—a vision of the past that is more saccharine than real, very much a Disney-fied past with the corners sanded down and the difficulty swept under the rug. It’s selling us something that wasn’t really real, to consume. Nostalgia is a trip into the past to avoid the harshness or pain of the present—which often then involves ignoring the pain in the past as well. It’s baked into the word itself—the desire for nostos—to return home again—coupled with algos—emotional pain. Nostalgia is the pain we feel when we desire to return to a home that no longer exists. If the future is the undiscovered country, the past is ashore on the horizon we can see but not return to. Nostalgia, by definition, is bittersweet.
Remembrance is different. Remembrance isn’t sold to us to consume. Remembrance is the active work of remembering the past, remembering the night, remembering the moment, to find in that moment—in the fullness of its joy and goodness, as in its pain and agony—to find in fullness of that moment the holiness, the immanence, the transcendence, and to take that memory into the present. Remembrance is the active work of seeking the memory of the presence of God in our lives and the lives of our loved ones, to help us find the presence of God in our lives in the moment.
Nostalgia fills our heart with a saccharine aching for the past that never was; remembrance fills our hearts and minds with the knowledge of God’s presence in the past and therefore in our present, and in the future. Nostalgia is about regret; remembrance is about hope.
TONIGHT IS THE NIGHT we remember. There are four holy nights at the heart of the mystery of Christianity and tonight I believe is the most important one. On Christmas Eve, we ponder the mystery of incarnation, of God becoming flesh in the form of a baby born of Mary at the dusty outskirts of an empire of cruelty. It’s the night God experienced the loving embrace of a mother’s arms. Tomorrow night we will ponder the suffering and death of the Incarnated God at the hands of that same empire of death. The night after we ponder the mystery of resurrection, of the rising of the Incarnated God from death into newness of life. But tonight—Holy Thursday—we ponder the mystery of the sacrificial love of the Incarnated God —of Jesus of Nazareth—and his command to remember this night, and what he did in it with his friends: how he washed their feet, how they gathered in a meal, how he taught them to love one another.
GOD COMMANDING US TO REMEMBER is a theme that spans across the Bible and centers on the commandment to remember THIS night. Tonight’s text from Exodus reminds us again the story at the heart of Exodus: how after sending plague after plague Pharoah’s heart was still hardened against letting the Israelites go, God promised Moses one more plague—he would strike down all the first born of Egypt. God speaks to Moses in a space outside of history and time: commanding the Israelites to remember this night in a meal; that the meal is intricately related to both the sacrifice and deliverance, and that it should be remembered and repeated yearly so they would not forget. Remember to not forget: God remembers his people. God remembers his promises. God hears the cries from oppression by empire. God acts on those promises in the world, in the fullness of time. Remember to not forget: God does not forget his people. God does not forget you. God has not forgotten. God is coming.
JESUS AND HIS FRIENDS were gathered in Jerusalem for this very reason: it was the Passover, the feast of Remembrance. These promises are layered together in an intricate, nested mystery. Tonight’s Gospel is John’s account of their night together and it’s the most intricate, the most involved account. They are gathered to remember God’s act of salvation, liberation, and deliverance, and the disciples experience the incarnated God in their midst, acting to save, liberate, and deliver them. And how does the Incarnated God do this? He first washes their feet—their dusty, callused, cracked, dirty feet. He kneels and lovingly washes their feet. He humbles himself, the servant leader. They eat the meal commanded to them to do, to remember God’s promises of salvation and deliverance to Moses, and what does the Incarnated God sitting in their midst command them to do? To gather and eat, take the bread, take the wine, and do this in memory of him. Gather, eat, and Remember the night, of our remembering the promise of God remembering his promises to us. And when we do this? When we love one another as he loves us, when we humbly serve each other, when we love one another as he loves us, by this, everyone will know that we are his disciples. If we have love for one another.
So let us remember. Let us return to the memory of the past and tell the story again. Let us in our remembering find the Holiness of God’s presence in the lives of our ancestors and our loved ones gone to the distant shore. And in doing so, we bring to our present the knowledge and surety and comfort and joy of the memory that God does not forget his people, God does not forget his promises, and to use that memory in the present to give us hope to do the work God has called us to do, to live out the commandments in our daily lives, and to love one another as he loves us.
— Steve Bragaw
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog