This week, as I perused the various newspapers and news sources I typically look at every morning, I wasn’t surprised to find several pleas regarding the significance of “remembering.” More specifically, we were called to “remember” Pearl Harbor Day, December 7. There are, of course, other tragic days for which we are asked to remember—September 11, November 22, etc.
I can’t help but wonder: what are we remembering and why? Shall we remember those who died, the families torn apart? Shall we remember the sense of community that follows national tragedy? Shall we remember the sense of vengeance that also tends to follow, especially in cases where our country has been attacked?
I wonder about remembering, and I wonder about wondering about remembering. The calls to remember seem often to include a companion piece to the remembering, and that is “never again.” Yet, tragedies continue, big ones as well as small ones, the ones we choose to hold up for mass memorial as well as the ones that happen unnoticed, unacknowledged, unremembered.
As Christians, we also do a lot of remembering. We “remember” the birth of Jesus, even though we don’t really know when it happened, or exactly its circumstances (as difficult as it may be for some Christians, Matthew and Luke differ on the details; Mark and John are completely silent). We “remember” the important last days of Jesus—his entry into Jerusalem, his last supper with his closest friends, his trial and execution, his burial in a tomb, and then the mysterious (and terrifying) third day when the tomb was found empty. Jesus had become for us Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Risen One.
We do a lot of “remembering.” Our remembering, though, is not simply meant to remind us of something important. Our remembering is meant to invite us in, to make us a part of the story, to understand the transformative nature of Christ as Christ continues to live and breathe among us, as we declare ourselves to be Christ’s followers.
But, we Christians too, can get caught in the problematic ways of remembering, as if the simple act of remembering, of observing, of engaging in the ritual of holy-days, is what we are called to do as people of faith. Especially around Christmas (and Easter too), I notice the pull of tradition—favorite hymns (sung with traditional words), well-known bible passages (read from traditional translations), etc.
Remembering through favorite hymns and familiar Bible passages is not in and of itself a problem. The problem emerges when the familiar and traditional become simple acts of a sort of spectator sport. When we sing familiar words just because we know them by heart, when we fall into the rhythm of familiar scripture story, and allow that to be enough, to be all of our observance, then remembering is nothing more than empty ceremony.
Holy-days, Christmas certainly among them, must be more than that.
It’s not that we should remove all that is comfortable and familiar. We should instead be willing to invite not only an element or two that is new and different, but also to allow our hearts and minds to be open to new awareness even in the most familiar of the season, to allow wonder and awe to be actively part of who we are and what we do.
In a busy season, it’s not easy to invite something new, to engage with the unfamiliar. In fact, it can be precisely in that busyness of the season that causes us to crave the comfort of our traditional observances—when our sanctuaries become in significant ways, actual sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the world around us.
But, we are indeed called—again and again—to accept the invitation into the story. We are not to gaze from afar into that manger scene, but to see who we are in the story, and to consider the different sorts of roles we play over the years of lives of faith.
For our faith to be truly meaningful, we must be willing to open ourselves to the new—for the very point of our gathering is to be drawn in by the vulnerable infant, God incarnate, born in a stable (or wherever), but most importantly, born in our hearts, even if for the hundredth time.
The Christian faith is not just about remembering, about memorializing, capturing something special from the past. Our remembering is something very different. It is about living and entering into new life, day after day, holy day after holy day, welcoming the surprises of our living, still speaking God. The coming into our lives as an infant is just the beginning.