“Do this for the remembrance of me.”
Jesus of Nazareth, Luke 22.19 & 1 Cor. 11.24
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
What Jesus meant when He said “for the remembrance of me” is a divisive matter that has ironically done exactly the opposite of His desire. He said that the world would know of His Lordship over His disciples’ lives by their love for one another and if they did as He commanded. He indicated that they were His friends if they did what He commanded them. Yet we do not do as He said and we are not the witness that He intended. For centuries now Jesus followers would rather argue and separate. The arguments, generally speaking, settle into two questions which seem to divide Christendom: “Who’s in charge?” and “What does this mean?” The answers to these questions reveal the separation and fracture of the Christian Community. How one answers “who’s in charge” goes to the heart of the divisions in Christendom. The answer to the question usually entails a person (e.g., the Pope) or a thing (e.g., the Bible) and/or a concept (e.g., the Magisterium or Sola Scriptura). When discussing authority for the resolution of issues we usually engage questions from the point of view of the second point above. This usually turns one back to the first question in the form of the retort: according to whom? And so go theological discussions. Our discussion of biblical hermeneutics raises this question early on.
This paper is written during the tumultuous season of the Episcopal Church’s 2006 General Convention. The Episcopal Church has declared that there is no ‘plain sense of Scripture’ and therefore any and all attempts or desires to support one’s position or claims for a particular matter are deemed ‘opinion:’ something which everyone has and all of which are equally valid. That proposition of the Episcopal Church (that there is no plain sense of Scripture) is itself a theological position of dubious merit and is often described as “postmodern.” The underlying assumption is that all is truly subjective. And if this discussion were taking place in a secular environment that assumption may be warranted. However, can objectivity be achieved among people of faith? And if not pure objectivity, can a catholic claim to truth be determined? The obstruction of subjectivity must be overcome if there is to be any solution to our present theological stalemate. We begin to prevail over subjectivity by acknowledging context. By acknowledging our context we describe the bounds of our study, and we recognize that there are boundaries to which we must yield. To quote out of context is to remove a passage from its environs which then distorts its meaning. As the saying goes, “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” The solution to the question of whether there is a plain sense of Scripture is found in locating the context of Scriptural interpretation in the Church. This leads to a variation on the previous question asked: is there a plain sense of “Church”? Again acknowledging boundaries and context, the present context will be my own and I will strive to keep my remarks well within the bounds of what constitutes the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Having identified that there is an obstacle of subjectivity to overcome, I then recognize that the central component of my whole-parish ministry paradigm (viz., how we implement “do this in remembrance of me”) is one of the most enigmatically contentious matters in all of Christianity. And while “a faithful reading of Scripture is crucial to understanding the issues and questions before us,” irrespective of what the issue or question may be, the “faithful” component of the previous statement is critical to understand when coupled with another insightful observation: “it is clear there is no such thing as value-free inquiry.” If faithful Christians were to incarnate the many meanings—explicit as well as implicit—of His command (i.e., remember me), then we would be getting much further on with the fullness of life which He longs for us. I would suggest that personal prejudice (e.g., style, taste—the aesthetics of worship) as well as theological and historical bias have curtailed rather than enriched our understanding of Jesus’ words. When I speak of “fullness” I mean that there is a wide semantic field which different Christian denominations have—for myriad reasons—ignored. In this paper I propose to explore some of these meanings in order to arrive at a hermeneutic which may be utilized as a faithful paradigm for a whole-parish ministry: one with focus, trajectory and a goal.
St. Luke and St. Paul capture in Greek something that Jesus probably said, given the liturgical nature of the event, in Hebrew. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Whether unfailingly used in liturgical prayer or merely carved into a table set before an assembly, there is profound significance in Jesus’ words. While they usually have not been forgotten or ignored, the manner in which they have been remembered belies their very nature. Jesus’ words may indeed be remembered; however, I question whether or not they have been understood. What did Jesus mean?
One of the first ways of reckoning what Jesus meant by ‘remembrance’ is to locate his context. If we can locate Him in a specific milieu, and can determine whether that milieu in turn can be determined, then there is a good chance of understanding Him. That Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish man living in occupied Palestine in the first century is not subject to debate. As a resident of an occupied territory Jesus would have spoken his native Aramaic as well as the lingua franca, which was Koine Greek, in order to communicate with others outside His own people. As a faithful Jew, a teacher and rabbi, we may conclude that Jesus also spoke and could read and write Hebrew. In light of these religious and linguistic parameters usable by Jesus, what would the mindset of a first century male Jew have been with regard to time and memory? Can the mindset of Jesus be known?
Classically a study of this sort would begin with a word study and then draw conclusions. The problem that we have is that analysis of zkhr and l’zachroni and mnemosis and anamnesin is limited by their semantic domain in English. To simply translate and explain that our words mean “remembrance” or a “calling to mind” or “memorial” is to not get behind the depth of how they were understood. The English assumptions do not normally allow for an understanding which embraces not merely the semantic domain but also the world view and perspective of Hebrew speaking, Old Testament believing, knowing, understanding people. Examining the biblical terms rkz and avna,mnhsij does yield a surprising amount of information. However the concepts which lie behind the words are a little more difficult to assess.
There is much literature written about how or whether a linguistic domain reflects a mentality of a people. D. A. Carson has included an entire fallacy called “linkage of language and mentality” which is fairly explicit as it undermines attempts to determine a culture’s psychological thought processes based upon linguistic analysis. Carson writes:
“The heart of this fallacy is the assumption that any language so constrains the thinking processes of the people who use it that they are forced into certain patterns of thought and shielded from others. Language and mentality become confused… But one should be suspicious of all statements about the nature of ‘the Hebrew mind’ or ‘the Greek mind’ if those statements are based on observations about the semantic limitations of words of the language in question.”
To be sure there are sociological assumptions which can be made based upon semantics and vocabulary, but how far they can go toward determining total meaning is questionable.
Since the semantic domain of the vocabulary is not useful to definitively determine Jesus’ mindset we must ask whether there is a theological substrate which might be utilized instead. Perhaps. There are presumptions regarding Jesus’ Jewishness which can be determinative in understanding his conceptualizations, and if we can determine that these conceptualizations do not respect lingual/cultural (e.g., Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine) boundaries and are able to transcend historical gaps (i.e., from biblical Judaism through 2nd Temple, protorabbinic Judaism) then certain conclusions may be drawn.
There are two essential archetypes or paradigms that yield themselves up to being considered when studying the biblical understanding of “remembrance”: God remembers and the people of God remember. Biblical memory involves a clear sense of activity rather than mere mental exercise. One of the most thorough explorations of this, and on which much research is based, is Brevard S. Childs’s monograph “Memory and Tradition in Israel.” In short, “remember” is about knowing: being and doing.
“Israel must remember ‘to know the saving acts of Yahweh’. [sic] The act of remembering serves to actualize the past for a generation removed in time from those former events in order that they themselves can have an intimate encounter with the great acts of redemption. Remembrance equals participation.”
This is brought out in the study of the biblical texts.
We begin with God remembering. Several subsets exist in which we may learn what God remembers. First, God remembers His covenants. God’s relationship to Creation is expressed on the basis of covenant. In Genesis 9.15-16, God said to Noah, “I will remember my covenant… [and] never again will the waters… destroy all life.” God’s memory prohibits the destruction of His Creation. Before the Exodus (Exodus 6.5, 6), God said “I have remembered my covenant… therefore… I will free you.” This implies an understanding that God’s remembrance is causative of Israel’s salvation. In describing the identity and behavior of His people in Leviticus 26.42, God promises to remember His covenant and restore them to their land “if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors” (Lev. 26.40). Nehemiah, Job, Ezekiel and many psalms include a similar promise. Besides specifically remembering His covenant God also remembers His love: 2 Chr. 6:42, Neh. 13.22, Psalm 25.70, His tender mercy: Hab. 3.2) and other attributes which bind Him to His covenant. In the remembering, God acts.
God remembers those whom He has chosen. Merrill writes, “God does more than call people to mind—he remembers them with purpose.” Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Moses, Nehemiah, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the psalmist, and others are specifically remembered by God. And as God remembers their lives He saves them and they are changed.
God also remembers things that are done. God remembers worship and God remembers sin (e.g., Jer. 14:10 and Hos. 8:13; 1 Kings 17:18); and there are consequences to what God remembers.
Perhaps since we are made in God’s image, perhaps because He has placed a longing in our hearts humanity remembers also. Human beings remember God; human beings remember God’s promises and decrees; humans remember history and celebrate or mourn assigning authorship to God for what has happened in life.
B. S. Childs has already been sited for his succinct equation of ‘remembrance.’ The conclusion of his monograph expounds on this as he summarizes:
We are suggesting that neither the mythical nor the historical analyses of the process of actualization are adequate to describe the biblical category [of memory]. This appears to be a concept which shares features of both [mythical and historical analysis] yet exhibits a unique character of its own….
[The Exodus, wilderness wanderings, and conquest as unrepeatable acts] were determinative because they constituted Israel’s redemption. In other words, they became the vehicle for a quality of existence, redemptive time and space.
These redemptive events of the Old Testament shared a genuine chronology. They appeared in history at a given moment, which entry can be dated. There is a once-for-all character to these events in the sense that they never repeated themselves in the same fashion. Yet this does not exhaust the biblical concept. These determinative events are by no means static; they function merely as a beginning. Our study of memory has indicated that each successive generation encountered anew these same determinative events. Redemptive history continues. What does this mean? It means more than that later generations wrestled with the meaning of the redemptive events, although this is certainly true. It means more than that the influence of a past event continued to be felt in successive generations, which obvious fact no could possibly deny. Rather, there was an immediate encounter, an actual participation in the great acts of redemption. The Old Testament maintained the dynamic, continuing character of past events without sacrificing their historical character as did the myth…
Actualization is the process by which a past event is contemporized for a generation removed in time and space from the original event.
Thus far we have reviewed some of the extensive material regarding what “remembrance” constitutes biblically. But to what end does God and do God’s people remember? What is God’s covenant for? Besides sidestepping annihilation, is there another reason why the people whom God has chosen would remember Him?
Theological discourse has attempted to answer this question for some time. Many catechetical manuals are filled with reasons for the Creation and rationale for the why of God’s creative acts. That it was His good pleasure may be sufficient for our purpose. But while exploring God’s intention is important, the lengths to which God has gone to reconcile humanity and proved the means of the relationship between humanity and Himself to be healed is important to our pursuit of the meaning of “remember.” What God’s primary motivation for Creation, He sent His Son to effect that eternal purpose. The Atonement, the Resurrection and of heaven, all of Jesus’ life and ministry point to the reclamation of God’s initial plan.
Unity and restoration are the fundamental and primary biblical objectives regarding Creation and humanity’s destiny, regarding Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and, therefore, for God’s intentions for the world (economia). That God’s intention was for humanity’s eternal presence with Him is understood from the absence of death in the Garden. That God desired immortal life for humanity is understood from the great reversal effected by Christ’s death and resurrection. That we should remember—and ‘remember’ in the sense we have gone to lengths to explain—Jesus as He said we should is integral to the fulfillment of God’s eschatological hope for humanity.
The enormity of the task of explaining ‘remember’ in this wholistic biblical manner has been something I have wrestled with for years. It is not that difficult a concept to embrace; however overcoming the ‘mere mentality’ which remember conjures up in English is always an issue. If the setting is established perhaps the totality of the concept will be appreciated.
When one pictures that “on the night He was betrayed” Jesus had gathered all of His friends in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover with them, He was already conscious of Himself as the foundational unit from which the disciples derived their life. Jesus was the head of a small body of disciples. Upon His arrest, Jesus’ band of followers was scattered. Knowing that this would take place, He provided the means whereby His followers would remember His life, death, and—prophetically—His resurrection. For His ministry of reconciliation, redemption and restoration to continue he provided the means whereby His followers would be re-gathered, be joined together, reconstituted, be ‘re-membered’ as His Body in order to continue the fulfillment of His mission.
I enjoy word-play, and many years ago a pun on the term “remember” occurred to me. Coming in a momentary flash of inspiration, I was thinking about an upcoming Communion class for the parish children and wondered how the Eucharist might be explained: what it is that we do and what we believe God does during our liturgy. The verbal explanations I had used had become tired and worn. As I thought of the way in which another sense might be used the image of “Mr. Potato Head” came to mind. The Head is central to everything. The members constitute the Head’s Body. Apart from the Head the parts are lost and do not function as they were made. Unless they are connected to the Head the parts cannot be all that they were meant to be. The only way for the members to fulfill their destiny was to remember…
This linguistic chiste serves a tremendous function in that it springboards the faithful over their linguistic preconceptions of “remember” into a fuller, more complete understanding of the nuance and complexity, the polyvalent meaning which “remember” has in the biblical texts. If we see and embrace the entire palette of connotation which remembrance represents, the color of our celebration can be marvelous indeed.
In summation, “remembrance” is about knowing God in a dynamically connected relationship, being what we were made to be and doing as God had intended. Our categories of remembrance extend to the semantic domains of God and humanity. Childs’s findings indicate that biblical memory involves a clear sense of ontological and eschatological activity rather than mere mental exercise. In the upcoming chapters I will demonstrate how Jesus’ commandment to “remember” Him is a fountain of instruction, direction, explanation, inspiration and an allegory par excellence after which a parish might emulate her ministry. Following Christ’s cue, a parish ‘remembers’ 1) for the purpose of building herself up, 2) for outreach and evangelism to those external to her, and 3) for the ministry of reconciling the world to God in Christ.
Having discussed the biblical hermeneutic I will next move on to the theological and ministerial issues involved in my paradigm of parish ministry.