St Paul’s Cathedral, Springfield
For me, one of the saddest, but also one of the most curiously fascinating, of human predicaments is that of amnesia. To find myself devoid of any memory of my personal past, even to the point of not even knowing who I am, yet, at the same time, completely able to speak and write and drive and shop for groceries and things like that, is an incredible prospect.
Some time ago I watched a story on one of those tabloid television shows about a young woman with amnesia who was able to piece together enough clues to discover her actual identity. She travelled to what she had learned was her home town, and made contact with people she had gone to school with and others she had known, hoping to somehow jog her memory. In time, some memories began to return, not in waves, but in trickles. The story concluded with her expression of hope, even in the face of very limited progress.
Part of the message of the gospel is that we all have amnesia—you and I and everyone else born of human stock. As a race, we have forgotten who we are, and from whence we came. We continually speak of human life as a journey. We are en route from somewhere to somewhere, but we’ve forgotten just what or where “somewhere” is. To say that we are “forgetful” is one way of expressing our collective amnesia, our inability to remember.
Another, more direct, manner of expression is to say that we are dis-membered. “Dismemberment” speaks to the human condition of alienation and estrangement. We are cut off from one another—by race, by sex, by language, by culture, and by economic and educational status. All this is why the gospel is good news: God wants to give us our memories back! God wants us to remember who we are: that we are his, created in his very image. And God wants us to remember that this world is not our home, that we are, as the song says, “just apassin’ through”, that the heavenly Jerusalem is our home town—not “heaven” in the generic way people in our culture think of it as a “place” we “go” when we die, but a recreated universe, the new world that God has promised to bring into being at the end of time as we know it. In the meantime, God supplies what the New Testament, and Christian theologians, call grace in order to enable us to recover our memories of home and identity.
Grace is delivered by a number of different means, but tonight by two in particular. In a few minutes, several members of this congregation will have their feet washed by one who represents, in a particular and focused way, the ministry of Christ to this community. It will be an enacted parable. Not a parable in the form of a story, but a parable expressed in an observable act. In those moments, and afterward, we will “re-member” such values as humility, service, gratitude, graceful acceptance of charity, patient waiting, and subordination of prideful ego. These are some of the values of “home”, and tonight, as feet are washed, we will recover a little bit of our memory.
We will also, tonight, take bread and wine, symbols of our common life. We will offer them to God, and offer ourselves in them. We will break the bread and pour out the wine in remembrance—ah, there’s that word!—in remembrance that Christ died for us, and we will feed on those gifts, now returned to us as Jesus’ own body and blood, the food and drink of new and unending life in him. We read tonight from Exodus about the institution of the first Passover celebration. The Eucharist—this action of taking and blessing and breaking and giving—is our Christian Passover. Every celebration of the Eucharist is a recollection, a remembrance, of Jesus’ words and actions in the upper room, but in the Eucharist of Maundy Thursday, the connection is particularly powerful and clear. The sacrament that we receive, and the liturgy that surrounds it, is memory therapy.
A physical therapist works with a patient to make the body “remember” movements and patterns which illness or injury have caused it to forget. I have known of neurologists making brain-damaged adults crawl on the floor like babies as a way of establishing new patterns and pathways for neural messages to travel on. The actions of Maundy Thursday—the foot washing, and the commemoration of the first Eucharist—serve the same purpose. They are memory therapy for spiritual amnesiacs. What we do tonight is meant to re-mind us of our identity, to enable us to re-collect where “home” is, and what it’s like there, so that when we finally arrive there, it will not seem disturbingly foreign, but indeed like the home that has been ours all along.