Jesus, remember me: There's a connection between the good thief's plea and "Do this in memory of me.".
Remembering things didn't use to seem like such a problem. In earlier cultures, oral tradition ruled and all of history was held within the memory of the storytellers and bards. Homer, who was blind, committed The Iliad and The Odyssey to memory. The stories of the Bible were told for centuries before they were written down. So why can't we recall the name of our third-grade teacher? Or the name of the person we just ran into at the grocery store? Even my mother had a hard time keeping my name straight when I was little, and she knows me quite well. She worked her way down the litany of my sisters' names (and sometimes my brother's) until she got to me. Being fifth-born has its downside.
Maybe keeping it all straight and knowing who's who is a problem because of the kind of society we've created. We move at such a lightning pace. Our global consciousness means we now keep track of the news from around the world, instead of around the town. We know far too many details of the intimate lives of celebrities and other strangers. The media bombard us with words, pictures, and impressions that we take in both directly and subliminally. Do we really need all this information? How are we supposed to remember this stuff, and--even more important--why should we?
Frankly, I'm finding it harder simply to read a magazine these days, what with all the sidebars, charts, graphs, and photos. My attention is being dragged here and there, while I struggle to stay within the main body of the text. But the need to get the scoop, the whole scoop, and nothing but the scoop has made us information junkies. And unless you've got a prodigious brain, it's hard to know where to put it all. I try to keep mental furniture to a minimum, so I find myself pushing the "delete" button on my memory more and more. For me, forgetting things has become a new default mechanism in coping with the verbal overkill.
As we raise a generation of children with attention deficit disorders, and create a superstructure of distracted adults who have no idea where they're supposed to be without a personal digital assistant, there is a small, still voice that is calling us in another direction. "Come to the quiet," it urges. "Be still and know who God is." It's that radical, sacramental church of ours again, at work subverting the social order!
What is the church up to? Most of us are light-years away from the lifestyle of the early Desert Fathers who beckoned the spiritual seeker out of the world entirely. They viewed society as a shipwreck--everyone had to swim away as quickly as possible or perish. But the contemporary church has articulated a more world-affirming position. The documents of the Second Vatican Council speak of the members of the church as leaven within the greater culture. The role of laypeople is particularly valued as the presence of Christ in the marketplace. Yet, despite this emphasis on active participation in the world around us, the church remains at the same time a champion of contemplation. The goal is simple: to remember who we are.
How could we forget? The real question is: How can any of us hope to remember our true identity when the forces around us are intent on selling us who we ought to be? (But only for this season, of course. Who's cool and what's in are shifting sands. By this time next year, we're supposed to want a different car, another brand of jeans, a new look for the living room, and a bigger burger.) Greed was in for a while, but then it went out. Compassion is the buzzword for the moment; tomorrow it may be an aberration.
Political views have their own brand of sexiness: We are always being seduced to surrender ourselves to this platform or another. We're "green" today; we're for the economy next term. Do we have to "give our bodies over to be burned," as Saint Paul once said, and our minds and hearts as well, in such an endless, circular fashion? We risk losing ourselves and the meaning of time and life altogether, if we do.
ENTER THE SACRAMENTAL PERSPECTIVE OF THE CHURCH. IT stands entirely outside the cycles of fashion, being oriented toward eternity. As such, it gives us firm ground in which to root ourselves. The bottom line of the sacramental worldview is this: Common things hold sacred realities. God's presence and activity can be known in the smallest and simplest things. What humans can know of God can be understood in bread and wine, oil and water.
The church says encountering God is not rocket science. God is not playing hide-and-seek with us. God wants to be made known to us and gives us every opportunity to meet our maker in the things of the created order. And when we encounter God, we come to know who we are most profoundly. In the presence of Love, we know ourselves as the beloved.
Sacramental moments--and here I mean the Big Seven as well as the dozens of tiny encounters with sacred presence we are offered every day--enable us to remember our original selves, the blessed and graced people we were created to be. The sacraments break the seal on seven possibilities for encountering God: in welcome and invitation (Baptism), in witness and commissioning (Confirmation), in shared meals and nourishing relationships (Eucharist), to name a few. God doesn't forget who we are, so God needs no vehicle for remembering us as the whole/holy people we are intended to become. But we--poor distracted creatures that we are--could use a celestial Post-It now and then to remember who God is and who we are within this fundamental relationship.
IN THIS SENSE, WE HAVE MUCH IN COMMON WITH THE FELLOW on the cross tradition has called the good thief. Here is an example of someone who had evidently forgotten who he was, with tragic results. He got mixed up in something bad, or took some regrettable turns along the way, and found himself on the tail end of a short life ruing his associates, his choices, and his lost chance for a better way. Certainly he had a story to tell, but scripture doesn't record it. We meet him when there's no time left to say how he got to Golgotha and why he's there condemned and dying next to Jesus.
Was his thieving personal or political, motivated by greed or poverty? Or was he a thief at all? Modern translations call the two men crucified with Jesus insurrectionists, revolutionaries, criminals, or bandits interchangeably. The same term is used to describe Barabbas, the prisoner who gains his freedom at the expense of Jesus. Whatever the man was guilty of, it was considered a crime against the state, or Rome wouldn't have been calling for his crucifixion.
But this particular fellow is not spending his last hour berating himself or blaming others. He isn't looking back at all, but rather makes a curious bid for his future: "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom."
That's it. That's all he asks. When you think about it, it's a remarkable request. If he believed Jesus was a king of some sort, he might have asked for a pardon, which only a ruler could give. Or if he thought Jesus was a holy man, he might have begged for God's mercy. Yet here he is, by all accounts a dying and desperate man, a failure in many ways, suffering the most humiliating form of execution his culture could assign--and he wants to be remembered, kindly we can imagine, by Jesus.
Just before this exchange, of course, the man on the other cross was choosing to spend his last breaths vilifying Jesus. It seems he found it amusing to be dying next to some charlatan preacher. Mockery and sarcasm were his style, and his rage at being put to death only enhanced his need to spit and tear at something. Life had made him what he was, and the imminence of death wasn't going to change him.
Yet our friend the good thief admonishes him, speaking of God and guilt. And then he points to the innocence of Jesus. All of this is accomplished in an economy of words, through the labored breathing of the crucified. And it is for this tiny service, this simple testimony he's given on behalf of innocence, that the man asks Jesus to remember him.
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT REMEMBRANCE THIS MAN COULD not have known, which has been revealed to us. Divine memory is no abstract thing. The power of sacred memory does more than keep a person or thing in mind. More than nostalgia, what the church calls holy memory is the power to call into being what has already been. "Do this in memory of me," Jesus said. Unlike the thiefs plea, Jesus wasn't asking us not to forget him. When we celebrate Eucharist, we don't recall a moment of history. Christ becomes present again in a way most tangible. Books have been written about the "dangerous memory" of the early church, which had the force of a revolution under its wings. The holy memory of Jesus makes him present again in a world which, then as now, would much prefer to have him resting forgotten behind a rolled stone.
"Jesus, remember me," the man pleaded--and surely he did not know what he was asking. All he may have meant was: Remember me--not for who I have been all my life, nor for what I have done to bring me here but for who I have been in this hour, the only one who defended you. Remember me as the person I forgot I was, a child of God, one who was created good for love's sake. Remember me as one of your disciples, who did not follow you long but was faithful at the end. Forget everything else about me but this, my final testimony.
And to this, Jesus replies: "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise." It's a promise Jesus gives to no one else on record, an honor not bestowed on his closest disciples. This fellow, who had made at least one fatal mistake in his life, also did one thing very right. And he got remembered into paradise for it.
At this very moment, God holds each of us in holy memory, remembering who we were created to be, inviting us to embrace that identity. Jesus, we can say with confidence, remembers us. And when the kingdom comes, we'll be there.
By ALICE CAMILLE, author of Invitation to Catholicism (ACTA Publications, 2001) and a collaborator on the homily series "This Sunday's Scripture," available through Twenty-Third Publications.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2001|
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