Thursday, April 1, 2021

Remembrance | Maundy Thursday 2021

"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, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NRSV

I'm gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame
I'm gonna live forever
Baby, remember my name
(Remember, remember, remember, remember)
(Remember, remember, remember) 
                                    from "Fame," a song written by Michael Gore & Dean Pitchford

"People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out. But suppose that those who remembered you were immortal and your memory undying. What good would it do you? And I don't just mean when you're dead, but in your own lifetime. What use is praise, except to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?"Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4:19

You probably don't remember a generally forgettable sitcom from the late 1980s entitled 'Just the Ten of Us.' It's about a coach who moves his rather large family to California for a job, and it only lasted three seasons. The only episode that has remained with me through the years, and the only reason I remember the show at all, was one where the father of the family agonizes over what his legacy will be. He's panicked that he's middle-aged and hasn't accomplished anything. Within the roughly 22 minutes of the show he comes to a realization that his son is his legacy. I don't remember if he meant him to the exclusion of all the boy's sisters, or if he was using him as representative of all his progeny. For him, though, this was the solution to the problem.

This stuck with me because it didn't solve a damn thing for me. I grew up in a family that kept careful track of its genealogy, for the most part. My dad had in his head the percentages of our ethnicity (all central and northern European, including England and Ireland), and modern genetic testing has affirmed the accuracy of his calculation. I grew up in the same Missouri county where generations of the various lineages of my family had come and gone, on the same farm where my grandmother had grown up. My grandmothers, great aunts, and parents told stories about their lives and their families. Thus I was keenly aware from a young age of the people of past generations, and of their absence. I also recognized the vast number just in the past 150 years of stories and lives that have been forgotten.

Someday, I too will be forgotten.

Marcus Aurelius reminds us that being forgotten is inevitable. One million years from now will descendants of our species still know anything about George Washington or Harriet Tubman, let alone any of us? I've told the stories I remember of my family to my kids, but my memory is untrustworthy and something must be lost in the telling and reception. Will they tell any of the stories to their children and grandchildren, and will they even resemble the actual events? Does any of it really matter?

I don't think so. Not, at least, to those who lived and now are gone.

The Catholic parish I grew up attending Mass in the same building that 5 generations before me of family on my mother's side worshipped. Above the altar hung a life-size crucifix depicting the suffering Jesus. The Mass itself retold stories from the life of Jesus and culminated in the eucharistic celebration of his death. Jesus is most certainly remembered, including his death, though it's hard to say how much is poetic license and legend. If, as the Nicene Christians believe, he is resurrected and lives, being very God himself, then being remembered and praised adds nothing to himself. The same holds true if, like all other people before and after, Jesus died and that was the end of the story for him. Recollection and fame add nothing to him personally.

There is, however, an impact made on the living who remember. Had Marcus Aurelius not jotted down his notes, which became the Meditations we now have, I doubt he'd be remembered by any other than scholars and history buffs. Nothing is added to him by being remembered, but what he contributed to human thought persists among us. Some claim changed lives through reflecting on his words. 

None of us can or—I believe—should hope to be remembered for all time for our own sakes. What would be the point? At the same time, if we want to leave a legacy of value, one that might outlive recollection of our names and lives, that is an option always open to us. We have the means to do it. By advocating with others for the rights and liberty of all people everywhere. By building organizations that others can carry on to do the work of producing goods and services of value to people. By striving for reform of oppressive systems and the abolition of unjust laws. By forming communities of covenant where individual, collective, and societal betterment and progress are core concerns. All these and more are ways that we can create value that will outlast us all. Even faithful love shown to others can carry forward. I firmly believe that I'm the product of many factors, not least of which the love of family that my parents inherited from their parents, and so on. 

The worth in remembering Jesus is there only if by such recollection we find ourselves called to envision and enact the human ideals of love, commitment, and solidarity that he can represent to us.