In the Name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of Sacred Memories. Amen.
Remembrance is a word that haunts Maundy Thursday. The word remembrance is in the Collect of the Day. It’s in the Passover story from Exodus. The Apostle Paul uses the word remembrance in his Epistle account of the Last Supper, which is itself a remembrance he received from the Lord and handed on to the Corinthians since Paul was not an eyewitness in the upper room. And even though remembrance isn’t stated explicitly in the Gospel, Christ’s “mandate” (from which the word Maundy is derived) has been reenacted by generations of Christians washing one another’s feet every Maundy Thursday as a ritual remembrance of Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loves us. This evening’s Homily is a reflection on how Christ’s mandate to love helps us to unwrap the sacred gift of Remembrance and to let love redeem our heartbreaking memories.
In 2015, as he was actively dying, world-renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote an essay titled, “The Fallibility of Memory” in which he explains that there is no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring that our recollections are completely provable. What we feel or assert to be true depends as much on our imaginations as our senses because events are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever those events are recollected. Sacks writes, “Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves – the stories we continually recategorize and refine.”i
For centuries, the Passover story in Exodus has indeed been told, retold, refined, reimagined, reexperienced, reinterpreted, and recollected because as Scripture tells us, “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” The stories humans have shared with each other over centuries, decades, or years, and the stories we tell and retell ourselves are more often than not based on motives, intentions, or feelings we remember experiencing, rather than on the literal events themselves. This is the Truth in Dr. Maya Angelou’s famous pronouncement “that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The stories we remember, retell, and reinterpret are not based on hard, cold, provable facts. We remember the truth of something profoundly moving that made an imprint on our hearts and got into our bone marrow. Even the controversial work of one of the most influential female psychologists of the twentieth century, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, proves our memories are reconstructed, not replayed. Loftus writes, “Our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality. It is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-like creature.”ii Oliver Sacks describes Freud’s lifelong occupation with investigating the creative nature of memory. He says the act of remembering was,
essentially a dynamic, transforming, reorganizing process throughout the course of life. Nothing was more central to the formation of identity than the power of memory; nothing more guaranteed one’s continuity as an individual. But memories shift, and no one was more sensitive than Freud to the reconstructive potential of memory, to the fact that memories are continually worked over and revised and that their essence, indeed, is recategorization… with retelling a story – either to others or to oneself – the memory of it is continually changed.iii
What does this have to do with the appointed Scriptures for Maundy Thursday? When we are plagued with painful memories, Remembrance can be a healing gift when those memories are placed in what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls “those almighty hands of love.” The Johannine community who memorialized the radical love story of Christ’s Last Supper and washing of his disciples’ feet; a love story that healed decades-old, painful memories of that night before Jesus’s agony, betrayal, torture, crucifixion, and death. Oliver Sacks saw therapeutic potentialiv in Remembrance. If we apply love intentionally to Remembrance, we can redeem painful memories through the creative, loving, sustaining process of reinterpreting the meaning of those memories we feel stuck in, and slowly we begin to heal, to grow, and to live life anew. Those tragic and beautiful sacred stories of the Passover or the Passion of Christ are Remembrances that run centuries-deep through the generations of our broken-hearted ancestors who continue to invite us to seek out new meanings of God’s love in Scripture today, and to invite those who will come after us to do the same.
When someone we love dies, our remembrances of them take on profoundly sacred meaning. Our hearts break again and again as we ache to be reunited with those whom we love but see no longer. The meaning of their life blossoms in new ways with each loving remembrance, day-by-day, season-by-season, year-by-year, decade-by-decade. As our spiritual resilience in experiencing the pain of loss deepens, it is the gift of remembering our most cherished memories of loved ones whose lives are changed not ended, that our hearts break open with gratitude for the privilege of opening and re-opening the sacred gift of what Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life.” Our Maundy Thursday remembrance of Jesus’ body broken in love for us, and the new covenant of his blood shed in love for us, is steeped in the retelling, reexperiencing, and remembering of Jesus’ love. Love so profound that it takes a lifetime to begin to understand all of its ineffable meanings. I’m comforted when Jesus says to Peter, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” All these centuries later, after John’s Gospel was first preached to its traumatized first-century community, then written down, translated, retranslated, told, retold, and reinterpreted, I am grateful that our ritual remembrance of Christ’s love-mandate, helps us to slowly understand, like Peter, why love really does always win. This Maundy Thursday Remembrance keeps Christ’s love in mind, retains that love in sacred memory, and recalls us to love radically again, especially when our hearts, like Jesus’s, are breaking. As he sets his example of how love is done, from a humble place of sacred servanthood, Jesus says, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
And that is precisely what we do as followers of Jesus. We do love, in remembrance of Christ’s love, especially when our hearts are breaking. We do love, in remembrance of Christ’s love, by proclaiming sacred stories and singing sacred songs. We do love, in the remembrance of Christ’s love, by serving others. We do love, in remembrance of Christ’s love-mandate proclaimed in word and deed on the night before he was lynched. We do love, in remembrance of God’s Love Incarnate who says to each of us again this Maundy Thursday, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” May these words, become more than words. Amen.
i Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) 120-121.
iii Sacks., 97.
iv Ibid., 98.