When I was a boy, there was a tradition at our church of singing certain songs around Passiontide. Despite the fact that as Fundamental Baptists we would have very much been considered “Low Church” Evangelicals, we still had a discernible liturgy for the season. Among the hymns which would be chosen to direct our hearts to the horrors of Calvary and the hope into which those horrors would be transformed three days later, was the old spiritual, Were You There.” That haunting tune compelled us to imagine the awful question of our own complicity in the death of Christ. Each new line brought fresh agony as we were interrogated as to our hypothetical role in the sufferings of the Incarnate Lord.
In four-part harmony, we conducted our Good Friday investigation: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed him to the cross? Were you there when they pierced him in the side? Were you there when the sun refused to shine? Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?” The thought was a most disquieting one to me as a young man. It did indeed cause me tremble, tremble, tremble. And it was with sweet relief that I could run away from those penetrating questions with the calm assurance that I had not been present—yea, could not have been present—when man murdered his Maker. But even then, there was an unsettling suspicion; a nagging accusation, deep and dark, that I had—somehow, some way—participated in the violent overthrow of moral sanity and spiritual reason.
Sometime later, after flying to Christ for mercy and finding at his pierced hands forgiveness for my part in his death, I found myself sitting in a communion service with a contingent of other wretches who had found pardon for Deicide. It was in that moment that reality hit me with the overwhelming force of blissful realization: not only had I been there at yonder tree, but I am there even now. As I sat there with bread in one hand and a cup in the other, Good Friday dawned on me in living color. In that moment when the word “moment” seemed to have lost any meaning, I stood there with a hammer in one hand and a spear in the other. Ah, but Sunday dawned too as somehow, quite mysteriously, I also stood in a cloistered upper room, stretching forth my tremulous finger to touch the side which was riven by my hands. And again, in this same timeless moment, I sat down with Peter by a charcoal fire to eat a meal of reconciliation with the Christ who came calling our names.
This recapitulation has been repeated time and time again. Indeed, even this morning as I knelt with empty hands to receive bread and wine, I remembered that I was a slave in Egypt and I was now eating the flesh of the lamb whose blood upon my doorpost was sparing me from the clutches of death—while at the same moment I found myself sitting in the heavenlies, robed in festal garments of spotless white, sharing a wedding feast with Abraham and his innumerable Seed.
The mystery which brought me into contact with these persons and events goes by a name most common—memory. We tend to think of memory and remembering as a mental activity whereby images from our pasts are brought to the foreground of our consideration. Those images are like ghosts which haunt the subconscious as abstractions; chimera, fragmentary thought-things, intangible and only sometimes half-intelligible. Thus, memories are not real because they are only the fading, translucent specters of a reality now lost to history. Memories, then, are but ethereal relics of an irretrievable past.
However, this is not how Holy Scripture conceives of memory and remembering. The prevailing view is largely impoverished because we have lost sight of eternity and the eternal as having any actual meaning. We dust-born creatures, wound tightly in our finitude, have forgotten that beyond us is the Eternal One who “dwells in eternity.” Transcending time and space—transcending all creaturely limitations—is God Most High. This same Lord, in condescending to fellowship with the Sons of Earth, has left the indelible mark of eternity upon each of our hearts. Memory is the blessed faculty with which God has endowed us that we may participate in reality irrespective of the strictures of space and time.
The past is not dead and the future is not elusive; the present is not a prison which binds men to the tyranny of the temporal. Time is a fellow–servant of God, so we may not bow down before him. The Eternal God holds every successive moment in his hand, and knows each of them—past, present, and future—simultaneously. Because he knows them intimately and exhaustively, we may argue that they are divinely determined, but what we need not argue is that since they are known they actually are.
Time, like every other creature, finds its genesis in the Eternal Word, but what is of greater consequence is that time also finds its end in the Logos as well. This is true regarding the entire semantic range of that deceptive monosyllable. That is, time will reach its “end” in the sense of culmination at the final advent of Christ. For it is written that “time shall be no more” (Rev. 10:6). But in a sense that is not always immediately appreciated, time also reaches its “end,” which is to say, its telos in Christ as well. He is the fullness and fulfillment; alpha and omega, first and last. Where Christ is, there is also a simultaneity of beginning and ending.
This suggests adopting more of a liturgical approach to time than that of bare linear progression. All people at all times stand in some sort of relation to the great epochal moments of history: creation, fall, covenantal promise, exile, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and final cosmic recreation. No one exists in a state of absolute isolation from any of these events. Memory is a participation in these events (and their respective consequences) whether we are cognizant of them or not. “Forgetting God” and failing to walk in accordance with his precepts is the photo-negative of “remembering God” and walking in his ways. As such, forgetting is also a function of memory, though it may be characterized as disobedience rather than faithfulness. This is precisely why a failure to remember the words and works of God is always considered a moral failure in Scripture rather than a mere mental defect. So far as God is concerned, to say, “I forgot,” is not to offer a valid excuse, but rather to confess an additional sin. Consider the book of Deuteronomy as evidence of this point.
Time also has a sacramental character (insofar as it communicates to us the conspicuous presence of divine grace by the Christ who gives history its redemptive shape). It is porous and permeable, rather than remote and untouchable. Consider the example of Exodus 13:8, wherein the Lord instructs Moses to teach the people: “On this day [Passover] you shall explain to your son, ‘This is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” Yet, the “I” who came out of Egypt will eventually be men and women who live generations later. The past event of the first Passover will be constituted a present reality for those who later keep the memorial feast.
Turning our attention to the Eucharist, we are confronted with the words of institution: “For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise, after supper, he took the cup; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink ye all of this; for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins. Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me” (The Book of Common Prayer).
The term which is rendered as “remembrance,” or as “my memorial” in the Sacred Text is the Greek word anamnesis. Far from being a new concept denoting mere intellectual reconsideration, it is a word loaded with significant meaning in terms of covenantal fidelity, one’s relation to time and space, and divine action. Thus, when Jesus (and later St. Paul), commanded his people to “Do this in remembrance of me,” the primary idea was not to affect some sort of ecclesial collective consciousness or a holy hive-mind. Rather, the imperative concerned a cultic action which would bring God and men together in true communion, effectively bringing every sacred promise and salvific deed into covenantal contact with the present through the presence of the Divine.
The idea of anamnesis was much alive in Greek thought. In his book Mimesis, Erich Auerbach has described what could be called the classical-aesthetic concept of anamnesis. He does this by analyzing the poetry of Homer, and he calls our attention in particular to the passage in the Odyssey where the old Eraklaeia, Odysseus’ nurse, recognizes Odysseus when she sees the scar on his leg. Suddenly the past becomes present in that the cause of the scar is described. The scar originates from the time when Odysseus had been out hunting with the sons of Autoklytus. But the difference between past and present is wiped out. The depth dimension of the past, Auerbach maintains, is foreign to Homer. It’s not so much a question of past events which mark out avenues of direction for the present and the future, but of recollections which are assimilated into an eternal present of pure description. There is, thence, no “time” perspective here.
While retaining the essence of the notion that through anamnesis temporal boundaries are breached, the Apostolic writers reached further back to the older, Hebraic idea of memory which also based consequential action (both human and divine) on remembering. And this “remembering” came in the form of the sacraments of the Old Law.
The first recorded memorial sacrament is found in Genesis 9:11-17, as God makes his covenant with Noah: “And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there anymore be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”
In this instance, all of the action is on the part of God. He sets the terms of the covenant, he pledges perpetual fidelity, he appoints the sacramental sign, and in so doing, he remembers. The bow in the clouds is a memorial, and it is a memorial for God. The rainbow is a visible sign; a memorial sacrament. In the act of painting an arch of primary colors, God is remembering his word to his people. It is my argument that this first memorial—this first anamnesis—should inform how we understand all those that follow, including the Eucharist.
If we consider the Passover on its own merits and as the rubric for the Lord’s Supper, we find that this pattern holds true. The Passover sacrifice and meal were objective realities which stood as tokens of remembrance before God. What is often missed is that the Passover was itself the memorial action; the “remembering.” The festivals and offerings were the objective recollections before the Lord.
In the letter to the Hebrews the same objectivity of sacrifice is suggested when the limitation of the sin offering is compared to “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). There it is said that, “In those sacrifices there is only a yearly remembrance of sins” (Heb. 10:3). The remembrance, in other words, is in the sacrificial offering, not in the person doing the offering.
In the late post-exilic period, the Passover Feast (that is to say the combined Passover-massot feast) had become Israel’s primary sacrament: the past and the future meet in the present. Here the deeds of salvation of the past have become tokens of the pledge for the future salvation of Israel. Since Israel lives on the basis of a hope which has been promised to her in the past through word and deed, the reality of the past receives decisive meaning. It is not simply a question of recollection, but of “making” the past a present reality. Therefore, the Passover Haggadah—and that is to say the narration of how the Passover Feast was instituted, the narration of the liberation from Egypt—is not just a story which is told to remind, or amuse, or entertain. The narration of the Haggadah is duty. It is a question of the existence of the people; without this story the people simply would not exist. Without a memorial sacrament there would be no Israel.
In conjunction with the biblical concept of anamnesis, the Jewish Passover-massot feast has three functions which must be stressed: (1) Passover is a confirmation of the presence of God—here and now with his people; (2) Passover is a proclamation of the message of salvation (the past); and (3) Passover’s intercessory prayer reminds God of his promise (future). In other words, all of the different (temporal) aspects which are tied up with the Hebrew verb for remembering stand forth with clarity in the Jewish Passover Feast. Thus, Passover is an anamnesis, which (1) points back to the mighty deeds of salvation history (this is the content of praise and thanksgiving), (2) realizes God’s presence in the present in that one offers something to God (namely praise and thanksgiving) while God members Israel, and (3) points forward in time on the basis of the divine promises in history.
In the same way, the Christian Eucharist points back in time to God’s act of salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; while at the same time the presence of Jesus is experienced in the congregation as a present reality; and finally, the Christian Eucharist points forward in time to the coming of Jesus. But that “pointing forward” does not diminish the presence of the future already enjoyed in the present. The difference is that whereas Jewish Passover points forward in time to God’s decisive intervention (the coming of the Messiah), the Christian Eucharist points back in time to God’s decisive intervention: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Contrary to the popular view that, in the Eucharist, we are commanded to call the past works of Christ to our mind and hold them there as objects of praise and gratitude, the biblical notion of anamnesis is portrayed as a memorial for God. That is to say, our act of presenting the covenantal signs of bread and wine and eating them together in the Divine Presence is meant to “remind” God of his action which he has executed through his son’s suffering, death, and resurrection. And this action is a link in the entire history of salvation—not only from the conception to the resurrection, but from the creation to the return of Jesus Christ. Hence, the emphasis is not upon our subjective mental re-imagining of the Passion, but upon the objective liturgical action which takes place within God’s believing community. It is little wonder, then, that our Lord’s command was not “reflect on this,” but rather, “Do this.” And more forceful still, “Do this as a memorial to me.”
These remarks lead us to consider the argument of Joachim Jeremias in Eucharistic Words. There he argues for the interpretation of the words of remembrance which I have offered. For Jeremias, it is possible to understand—even to translate—the command of Jesus in this way: “Do this, in order that God may remember me” (or “will be reminded of me”). Jesus commands his disciples to repeat the liturgical actions of the Lord’s Supper, in order that the prayer to God, which is set forth before the death of Jesus, will be realized. The content of this prayer is the coming Kingdom of God, which is bound up with the person of Jesus. The Lord’s Supper is therefore the realization of this prayer to the Father—namely, that the Father will remember, will be reminded of Jesus, and that is to say, his coming kingdom, which is breaking in with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Given this, it seems both meet and right for Anglican divines such as John Jewel and Richard Hooker to set forth the notion of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist as presence made present. Jewel wrote, “We affirm that bread and wine are holy and heavenly mysteries of the body and blood of Christ, and that by them Christ himself, being the true bread of eternal life, is so presently given unto us that by faith we verily receive his body and blood.” Hooker said similarly that in the Eucharist we have “the real participation of Christ and of life in his body and blood by means of this sacrament.”
In conclusion, anamnesis, the concept of “recalling,” “remembering,” “reminiscing,” or “re-presenting,” collapses the boundaries of time into a singular moment. “Memory,” brings past and future simultaneously into the present. For this reason, in the Eucharist, the Passover, the Crucifixion, the living reality of the Communion of the Saints across space and time, and the eschatological feast are brought together as a unified whole as the mighty work of God in Christ. It is an incorporation into the past events of redemptive history that goes beyond mere mental recollection of them, and it is a participation of the future history of God’s saving work that involves more than anticipation of eschatological victory. The “memorial” is a covenant sign which marks out those who have been caught up in the trans-temporal activity of salvation and cosmic renewal. In this way, our “participation in the body of Christ” is also a “proclamation of his death until he comes.”
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes. Just as you are also present with him in the glory of the coming kingdom every time you eat and drink the sacramental meal. Do this as his memorial, world without end. Amen.