Bertrand Russell, that great humanist of the past century, was fascinated with human memory. Our capacity to have events and feelings and notions seared in our minds in ways that we could recollect in detail and communicate from one generation to the next was the mark of our superiority above all else under the sun. Sure, Pavlov’s dogs could be trained to drool at the ringing of a bell, but we humans could remember how to recreate the bell itself, how to manufacture the dog food, how to set the scene to make the dog drool. Memory, for Russell, was what set humanity apart and made us like gods.
And this was also why he despised religion. Religion, said Russell, was the great opiate, that superstitious drivel that dulled the memory. The church bells would ring, and like dogs, the foolish religious would start drooling out rote prayers as they turned off their minds.
Russel’s befuddlement in the face of faith is understandable. Anyone who trusts human memory above all else will be suspicious of a faith which needs to rely on the same old book for two millennia.
“Can’t you people remember these stories? Do you really have to keep reading them week after week?” you can almost hear him say.
Throughout the world, ministers proclaim “The Word of God for the people of God,” and the people reply, “Thanks be to God.” The ministers say, “The Lord be with you,” and the people reply, “And also with you.” And from beyond the grave, the spirit of Russell protests, “Why must you do this stuff every Sunday?”
The church persists with these repetitions not so much because we think humanity is dimwitted but because we have an even grander notion of the power of memory. We believe that memory is more than just a display of human superiority, that there is a mystery inherent in memory which allows us to access the presence and will of God.
Nowhere in the church year is our peculiar notion of the mystery of memory more on display than during the season of Advent. In this season just before Christmas, when we turn our ears toward those who remind us of the nature of the God we are about to discover lying in a manger. As the world rushes headlong into Christmas, teeth gritted and credit cards blazing, the church slows down, and we seek to call to mind God’s coming in the flesh.
The church slows down because we remember what happens when humanity gets in a rush and forgets who God is. We, the church, who have in our history things like the rush of the Crusades and hustle of slavery and fast-talk of apartheid, we remember how distorted human memory can become when we forget to slow down and remember. We recognize how quickly we forget things such as confession, reconciliation, and seeking justice.
So Mr. Russell will have to forgive us if instead of being impressed with the human mind, the church is busy trying to remember the will and way of God. That’s the season of Advent.
Each year, to help us remember rightly, the church gives center stage to the prophet Isaiah. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence,” Isaiah cries out. It’s a prayer birthed from a memory. As the prophet prays for God to rip open the heavens, an earlier story of Isaiah’s comes to mind. Isaiah has one of those world-shaking personal calls that are rare, even in the Bible. One day, while he was sitting in the Temple, going through the same old prayers, singing the same old hymns, all of a sudden the earth shook, heaven ripped open, angels were singing, and the fiery word of God came to rest on his tongue. Everything changed. Suddenly he had purpose, call, power, and clarity like never before. That moment was burned in his memory for a lifetime.
But by the time Isaiah prays for God to come down and make the mountains quake, he and the people have been wandering, waiting, and held captive by the Babylonians for so long that the distant memory of his calling seems like it happened two thousand years ago. That calling feels all but useless now. And then, Isaiah does something peculiar. He mysteriously remembers his way into the future. Based on his memory of who God is and how God has acted in the past, Isaiah is reminded of who he is and suddenly, mysteriously, a whole new future opens up. And just like that, Isaiah discovers a new form of memory that gives way to hope. In fact, it was a way of remembering so unique that God’s people, and eventually the church, had to come up with a new word to even name what we are talking about. The word is anamnesis, which in the Greek means “again mind,” and it signifies the peculiar way of bringing to mind what we already know in order to enter our future in a new way. In a real way, we remember our way into the future, which according to faith, already is. That’s the mystery of memory.
Jesus is always harassing us to remember, to engage in this anamnetic memory until heaven tears open and the kingdom of God comes on earth. At the last supper, when he led us into what would become the pinnacle of our encounter with him until the resurrection, Jesus urges us to take the bread and wine in remembrance of him. At the table, we are remembering the acts of God and embodying the grace of his coming kingdom. We are remembering our way into the future.
Each time we baptize a new follower into the faith, there is rarely a dry eye in the house. Now I don’t think that is because we are bowled over by a baby or a stranger whom we don’t know that well. It’s because Jesus shows up and reminds us of our baptisms and of the great communion of saints who embody the memory of God with us. Heaven tears open and a new future lies ahead of us. It’s the mystery of memory.
Especially in Mark’s gospel, Jesus keeps cajoling his followers to remember that the end is near, just around the corner. He keeps reminding us that God is on the move, immediately, and we should keep awake. “Remember to stay on your toes,” says Jesus. “You don’t want to have your minds dulled by the securities of this world. God is about to tear open the heavens and come again in power and might. And it could happen anytime. Remember that.”
Remembering that God slipped past national security and showed up in a barn nestled in the backwoods of the Roman Empire, we are reminded of how God continues to show up today and how we will continue to find God in the future. God will make God’s advent among us in unexpected, earth-shaking, life-giving ways—often when we least expect it, always on the fringes, and always on the move. We remember that, and in doing so, we remember our way to finding God all over again in unexpected places.
This backward and forward dance in the memory of the church is the ancient dance of Advent. This peculiar anamnetic memory of God’s coming in the flesh reminds us of the kind of God we serve and propels us into the future, which is already present through the life, death, and resurrection of Emmanuel. When the church remembers who God is and what we are promised, the earth shakes and heaven rips open, and God’s Advent among us takes flesh all over again.
In so doing, the church begins to tap into the memory of God and to become the embodied advent of God with us—like when anamnetic memory forced some in the church to proclaim that slavery was wrong, well before the rest of the world. There were ordinary Christians deep in the backwoods of the Confederate South who remembered the promise of God’s coming again to set all people free. In their stubborn refusal to let the church forget the way God comes in the world, the church remembered who we were and what we were to be, and heaven tore apart and justice rained down. Advent, God’s coming, happened all over again, and the world shook and chains were loosed and heaven rattled and angels started singing their liberation song.
When this country was attacked ten years ago, both pulpit and pew, pundit and politician were so hurt and angry that we began looking for somebody, anybody, to blame. Yet there was the stirring of a deep memory of some in the church. These prophets remembered hearing something about loving your enemies, something about a peaceable kingdom came to mind. And there was a call to remember that war was not the only answer. Their voices are growing day by day, reminding us of another way that was begun in a little baby and continues in those who follow him.
Even now, there are voices in the church that sound an awful lot like Isaiah, reminding us of who God is, causing heaven and earth to shake. When we look at the work and intent of God in that child, there are reminders that God favors the alien and the stranger, reminders that our political lines have no purchase in God’s kingdom. Here this Advent, we are presented with reminders that peace and reconciliation across racial, socioeconomic, and every other cultural divide will take work and intentionality. It will take a deep, divine memory. It will demand anamnesis. It will require Advent.
Worship is our weekly reminder; Advent, our annual practice of anamnesis. The best worship services stir something deep within us, reminding us of something that we somehow, mysteriously, already know. The best sermons don’t so much teach us anything new as much as they mysteriously remind us of a hope and joy in Christ that is already deeply planted within our being.
Sometimes, God’s advent happens in our liturgy, and deep within us something is stirred, like a dormant memory of who we are. In these movements God moves; in these actions God acts, and suddenly we remember.
After one service, I remember a visitor who met me at the door and said, “I haven’t been to church in about ten years. Frankly, it’s always been a bit boring to me, and I wasn’t sure what the point was. So I wasn’t expecting much when I came here. But today, I’ve found my way home.”
I said, “Well, I’m glad you liked the sermon.”
“I didn’t,” she said. “It was in communion that something in me was torn open and I suddenly remembered who I was. My baptism, my confirmation, God’s love for me, and who I’m called to be.”
As I think back on that day, I remember feeling the earth move beneath my feet, and I remember mysteriously hearing the laughter of a little baby echoing out of a manger.