Thursday, April 13, 2017

Why remember?

A Sermon preached on April 13th, Maundy Thursday, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I have been seeing doctors rather more often than I am used to and like to do over the past few months. You know why! I was surprised to discover them using a word of Greek origin, anamnesis, in their written diagnosis. This refers, and I quote, to “information gained by a physician by asking specific questions, usually of the patient, with the aim of obtaining information useful in formulating a diagnosis and providing medical care.” The original Greek word just means "reminiscence." 

Why am I telling you this? Well anamnesis is also a word we use in church, well church nerds like me do. It refers to that part of the Eucharist where we recall God's saving deeds, which in the Eucharistic Prayer follows right after the Words of Institution. In today’s version of the Eucharistic Prayer I will say: “Father, we now celebrate this memorial of our redemption. Recalling Christ's death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to your right hand, awaiting his coming in glory; and offering to you, from the gifts you have given us, this bread and this cup, we praise you and we bless you.”[1]

Fine, but what does this have to do with Maundy Thursday, I hear you ask. Well one thing we celebrate at this service is the institution of the Eucharist, Mass, Holy Communion, or Last Supper. We heard two versions of it earlier. One from Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread etc.” (1 Cor. 11:23), and one from John who focuses less on the meal and more on the accompanying act of humble service, of foot washing: “And during supper Jesus, …. got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself … poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.” (John 13:2-5) 

But this use of anamnesis in the Eucharist is not the only connection with Maundy Thursday, or in fact with all of Holy Week. Starting with Palm Sunday, the whole week has been all about remembering, recalling, and reliving the events of that last week of Jesus’ human life. First, we remembered his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, tonight we remember that final supper together with his friends, we remember that very long night in the garden of Gethsemane, we remember his betrayal by one of his friends, and tomorrow, Good Friday, we remember his death on the cross. Christian remembering is not just a passive, intellectual process. It is the active means by which we actually enter into the Paschal mystery and participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and even participate in Christ himself. 

We remember best by not just hearing or reading something, but by doing or reenacting it. This is what God commands the Israelites to do in Exodus, to remember the liberation from slavery in Egypt by repeating the Passover meal every year: “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.” (Exodus 12:14) And throughout this week, we have not just listened to the stories, we have taken part in them – waving palms, washing feet, eating bread and drinking wine, staying up for part of the night, perhaps even dozing off as the disciples did, and then even shouting with all the people, “crucify him!”

One of the dictionary meanings of the word “remember” is to “do something that one has undertaken to do or that is necessary or advisable,” and in our case has been commanded or, using a word with the same root as Maundy, mandated. God commands the Israelites to remember. Paul tells the Corinthians that Jesus commanded them to break bread and drink wine in remembrance of him for by eating bread and drinking the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor. 11:26) The passage from John’s Gospel that we heard ends famously with Jesus’ new commandment. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) But before Jesus gives his disciples this commandment, he enacts what he means by love. “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:13-15)

Like any good teacher, Jesus knows that his disciples, who we are too of course, will remember best if they are given the message in multiple ways and especially if we are able to do or act what is being taught, if the teaching enters not only mentally, but also physically. And what is more physical than washing another person’s feet or having your feet washed?

But there is one more, one final connection with the medical use of the word anamnesis that I want to make. As a reminder, this was “information useful in formulating a diagnosis and providing medical care.” Our anamnesis, our remembering also has a lot to do with both formulating a diagnosis and providing not only care, but a cure! To quote again from tonight’s Eucharistic Prayer[2], the diagnosis is that “our disobedience took us far from God” and that “we live for ourselves.” The cure is “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” The purpose of symbolic actions, such as foot washing, is so that we remember this command and can receive and show love in all circumstances, not just symbolically. Love is both about giving and receiving, and is at the very heart of the Eucharist whose institution we celebrate tonight. The Eucharist is the incarnation of Christ’s self-giving, and receiving Christ in that Sacrament prepares us to go out and share that love with others. The cure for our ills, individually and collectively, is simply love. The love of God and the love of one another.

[1] BCP, Prayer D, p. 374
[2] BCP, Prayer D, p. 374

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