I’m sure many of us will have participated in acts of Remembrance today. We paused in an interview at 11.00. I’m looking forward to participating in my first Remembrance Parade in Hereford this weekend. It is unsurprising that Remembrance Day is such a big event in a Diocese like ours with such significant military connections. However, I note that despite predictions of its eventual demise a few years ago, Remembrance services remain well attended throughout the country. If anything, they increased in popularity in my 15 years as a parish priest.
The oft-quoted, “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes,” remains true. In the liturgical year, this season from All Saints through to Advent is a time of remembering. We have recalled the lives of the Saints as examples for godly living, as well as the fallen war dead.
But remembering is far more than recalling those who provide us with a good example, or whose sacrifice has helped constitute our modern world. Remembering is a vital spiritual practice.
In the early books of the Old Testament, remembering is an attribute attributed to God. We read of God remembering Noah and the animals prior to their emergence from the ark. As they resettle the drying land, God sees the rainbow and remembers his covenant never again to destroy the earth. When God remembers it is always about the objects of memory being brought to his conscious attention, and in that moment the divine action breaking into their experience. God’s ‘memory’ if we can give that metaphor a human shape, is not simply fuzzy recollection, but an active reengagement with circumstances. When his people appeal to him to remember, as they often do in Old Testament prayers, it is to invite his action in accordance with his revealed character.
Human memory is much frailer, as we know when that name elusively remains at the edge of conscious recollection. Crucial events that have formed us, both individually and collectively can get lost. That lostness can lead to an inability to change. Without being able to revisit the formative event and hold it up to the light we can become trapped in the outlook or personality that event has created. That applies both to individuals and communities. Why is it you can visit parish communities across our diocese, with similar demographics, economics, and geography that present such completely different corporate personalities? The events of the past bleed into the present. The personnel in a community may change but the cultural identity is passed on. It is not a myth that there are villages in parts of the country that are in conflict with one another; whose conflict is rooted in being on opposite sides in the civil war!
Our Christian identity is formed and sustained by memory. The rituals of the Old Testament were designed to ground their self-understanding in God’s mighty acts of deliverance. In Numbers 15: 39, even their vesture is designed with that in mind. They are encouraged to look at the tassels on their shawls and remember the mighty acts of the Lord. To remember was to bring the acts of history into present experience
At the heart of our worship is an act of remembering. We remember Christ crucified for us, his resurrection and ascension and look forward to his coming in glory. We eat bread and drink wine (at least we will again when COVID restrictions allow) to bring these events into conscious experience, to allow them to shape our identity and character. But this is a memory that is both constitutes and redeems. We can feel powerless in the face of bad memories and try to forget bitter experiences. Counselling can be extraordinarily helpful is surfacing these things and putting them in a better shape. But redemption goes deeper than that. Through the remembering of God’s loving action in Christ real memory can be transformed; bitterness can be released; damage can be healed. In our Christian remembering, we dare to hope that the past is no longer the only determinant of the future.
As we look to the future in these challenging times we, as did the Israelites or long ago, ask God to remember us. To remember his words to Peter, “this is the rock on which I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. This is a remembrance that brings hope. However disheartened we may feel, and at the end of these challenging 18 months trying to sustain things, to keep the church going, to stay connected, I know many are feeling exhausted and low; the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church.
As we gather on this Remembrance day, may God remember us, and we remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead to sustain us as we travel on together.