Maundy Thursday, 2017
April 13, 2017
Several years ago I read a novel called The Test, by Dorothy Bryant, a Bay Area writer originally from San Francisco. It’s a first person account of a single day in the life of Pat, a woman of the proverbial sandwich generation. Her children have recently launched into young adulthood, her mother has died the year before, and her father is struggling to maintain his independence. While the novel’s main action circles around her father’s determination to pass his driver’s test and renew his license (hence, The Test), the narrative is a sustained meditation on memory. Memory in this novel, as in life, is a tricky thing, ambiguous, capable of distortion. Again and again, Pat decries the impossibility of accessing “What Really Happened” (always capitalized). “Memory is never fair,” she declares. She expresses outrage when someone misremembers or distorts what she herself clearly recalls, and on the flip side gets frustrated with herself when she cannot be certain of what occurred. Recalling turbulent chapters in her relationship with her mother, Pat comments that the brittle, tense mother of her earlier life was not the gentle, smiling woman who had recently died. Her earlier memories had a way of intruding into the later relationship, rendering her mother “like an image in a photograph obscured by multiple exposures over time...” Her frustration at the “multiple exposure” memory impact leads her to comment, strikingly: “the whole truth can be a mistake, a distortion of the here and now.”
For several years this line has given me serious pause. I marked it, re-read it, even took a photo of it with my phone so I could consider it again. The notion that “the whole truth,” a full collection of memories, could ever be considered “a distortion” formed a kind of splinter in my brain. If we might grant that “the whole truth” is a good, then how could it ever be a distortion? Would not its absence be more of a distortion? Bryant’s narrator is struggling with memory not only as a biological fact, susceptible to fading, aging, and/or illness. She wrestles with memory as a practice—a practice more specifically of relationship. As I’ve thought about this passage over the years since I first read it, I find myself returning to this idea that memory is a relational practice. And as Christians, practices of memory, and the connection of memory to relationship, are fundamental. In the liturgical year this particular day, Maundy Thursday, may well be the one that most pointedly lifts up our practices of memory. On this day we are invited to remember and reaffirm the beginning of a practice we repeat at least week by week. It is a practice in which we stand before, behind, and/or around a table, or an altar, and both hear and speak Jesus' words, words that explicitly, self consciously inaugurate a practice of memory and presence. It is a day on which we are reminded that our worship shapes our relationships in the world in a way that activates both history and future in the present. This day reminds us that our liturgy of the table, the Eucharist itself, seeks to practice a presence not distorted but catalyzed by memory, grounded in a capacious love that stretches out to an emergent future.
Our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is considered the earliest written witness to what we call the sacrament of Communion or Eucharist. Both its descriptive language and the quotations of Jesus’ own words should sound familiar from our various Eucharistic prayers. Paul describes receiving and handing on an oral tradition in which Jesus took bread on the night of his betrayal, gave thanks, broke it and offered it with the words “this is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (11:24). Some of the specific words he uses have spawned many a sacramental argument, particularly in the Reformation. Some have emphasized Jesus’ declarations, “this is my body” and “this cup is the new covenant in my blood,” dwelling on the presence of Jesus’ body and blood in bread and wine. “In remembrance of me,” others have emphasized, focusing on the important role of memory in Jesus’ words. But if we are after a fuller truth, or even “the whole truth”— Bryant’s warnings nothwithstanding – just as important as body and memory are the words of invitation, or even command, “do this” as well the reference to repetition “as often as you drink it.” These are words that institute practice. We are a people who practice, are nourished by, both presence and memory as we celebrate the Eucharist week by week, day by day— and I say this imagining that a range of sacramental theologies are represented around our collective table this evening. I would add that in this practice, our own bodies and memories are reaffirmed as Christ’s own, our lifelong growth within Christ’s body stirred and renewed. Our collective practice offers gratitude that, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, we are “living members” or in older language, “very members incorporate” in a “mystical body” and a “blessed company” vastly larger than ourselves.
But in addition to memory and presence as well as gratitude, this practice also includes a profoundly future-oriented dimension. Paul makes this very clear when he says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26). Until he comes. This is an eschatological statement, a pointing toward the future presence of Jesus in a transformed world. Synoptic gospel accounts of this scene refer to this future with the language of God’s kingdom. Eucharistic prayers contain this future element as well. They reference not only the present, not only the past, but also the future, the eschaton, the arrival of the kingdom or the dream of God, as our Lenten discussion of Verna Dozier’s The Dream of God might help us to understand it. When we practice Jesus’ words, when we bear in mind the until of Paul’s witness, we should not, Dozier would insist, passively await that arrival. Rather, our practices of memory and of presence are meant to form and support us as disciples in the here and now, to be bearers of good news, joining in God’s realization of the dream in the world. Our communion hymn today makes an explicit connection between our practice of Communion and the call to discipleship, our participation in God’s building of the kingdom. “In remembrance of me eat this bread,” we will sing, “in remembrance of me drink this wine.” And then, “in remembrance of me heal the sick, in remembrance of me feed the poor, in remembrance of me open the door and let your brother [your sister, your sibling] in, let [them] in.” In remembrance of me, we could add in honor of our passage from John’s gospel, wash your feet, in remembrance of me, always serve. In remembrance of me, share in this practice, this invitation, this new commandment of love that Jesus offered to us, that we might offer it to one another. This is what we do, what we practice, in remembrance of Christ. Our practices of memory lead us to modes of presence in the world in which relationships are not obscured through distortion but opened into a spacious, hopeful future, “a friendly world of friendly folks under a friendly sky.”
I don’t think that Pat, the narrator in The Test, was wrong to point to the ways that memory can distort. Dorothy Bryant is surely onto something when she gestures toward how history can overlay itself onto the present in ways that make it difficult to see who stands before us here and now. I do not doubt that she would concur with the oft quoted warning that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. I am also certain she would agree that memory is crucial for heightening our awareness of injustice, including our own collusion in it. The "alternate fact" world in which we now find ourselves should absolutely sharpen our concern to safeguard "the whole truth." In the midst of all this, The Test reminds us how difficult it can be to hold the various ways and reasons for which people change. It illumines the challenge of recognizing such change when it occurs and of allowing a person to be who they are in the present, even as we remember who they have been to us in the past, and as we all walk inexorably into the future. This challenge can remind us of how we as Christians have been called by Jesus himself to practice a combination of memory and presence, a practice of love that nourishes us to grow together into a future God invites us to join in building. This loving practice can cultivate an openness, a capaciousness that looks for people to grow, to change, to be in community with one another in a way that holds ambiguity without distortion. It can allow us to remember the journey we have long been on, to voice our doubts, our frustration, our despair, even to rail with the Psalmist “Can God set a table in the wilderness?” (Ps 78:19) and then to answer, yes. Yes, God can. God has, God is, and God will. Take, eat, drink, wash, heal, serve, love. Do this in remembrance of me.
 Dorothy Bryant, The Test (The Feminist Press, 1991), 70.
 Book of Common Prayer (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), 339, 365, 366.
 Mark 14:22-25, Matthew 26:26-29, Luke 22:14-20.
 Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (Seabury Press, 2006)
 Ragan Courtney, “In Remembrance of Me,” in Lift Every Voice and Sing II (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1993),149.
 Dozier, The Dream of God, 25 (quoting Howard Thurman)