Sunday, July 18, 2010

Don't Forget

The Words of Institution of the Lord’s Supper come to us from the Apostle Paul as the instructions he received from the Lord about the meal to be shared “in remembrance” of Jesus. (I Cor. 11:23-26) Sometimes the Greek word Paul used is also translated as “in remembering,” occasionally “in memory of,” yet the English words all fall short of conveying what is meant in the context of the Lord’s Supper.

Therefore, scholars fall back on the original Greek word employed by Paul, which is “anamnesis”. Our word “amnesia,” loss of memory, is derived from this word. So an-amnesis means literally not-loss-of-memory, the opposite of amnesia. Anamnesis is all about having memory, being mindful, not forgetting, being reminded, remembering, recalling.

Yet even this most literal translation is insufficient. Anamnesis means recalling in the sense of re-calling. Rather than thinking backward into the past to remember Jesus, anamnesis re-calls the past into our present. In sharing the bread and passing the cup at the Lord’s Table we remember Jesus. Yet more than acknowledging that there was a man by that name a long, long time ago in a far-off land, we here and now re-call his life and teaching, his tragic death and triumphant resurrection and ascension. We call Jesus anew and meet him in the here and now. In the breaking of bread, our eyes are open and we recognize him, just as it was for those first followers of his. (Luke 24:30-31)

We speak of “the real presence” of Christ in the sacrament, which is supported by anamnesis. Memorializing Jesus, however, remembering him as a figure of past history, undermines this central theme. We do this sometimes with the best of intentions. On Maundy Thursday worship leaders might have a table set in the front of the sanctuary with twelve plates and trays of cups to mimic the original Last Supper. Or, using the Words of Institution along as the text for the breaking of bread and lifting the cup can send the whole experience into a rehearsal of a past event. As someone impiously put it, “Too often the Lord’s Supper becomes little more than a memorial to a dead Jew.” Rather, every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an encounter with the living Christ.

Anamnesis finds full expression in the Eucharistic prayer, the Great Thanksgiving. With thanks, the story of God’s way with God’s own people is re-called in a summary of Salvation History from Creation through covenants made and the voices of the prophets, to the coming of Jesus, the Christ. The life and ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and his ascension, are re-called in considerable detail. God’s actions of the past become present realities, re-called now in the worship experience.

As we approach the Lord’s Table and hear the instructive Words of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, we are told by Jesus to perform acts of non-forgetfulness. Bread and wine are the elements, but the acts of not-forgetting are eating and drinking. In the sacramental actions performed in obedience to our Lord’s command, we meet him face-to-face. These actions, then, become the down payments on all our obedient actions as we follow him into the world. The Lord’s Supper is food for our journey as disciples of Jesus, nourishing us as we pick up his ministry where we are.

Now as we remember Jesus, we re-call what his ministry means for us, for example: giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting prisoners (Matthew 25:31-46); bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19); and the many other instructions and challenges of his teaching, parables, and actions throughout his life and ministry.

In short, the anamnesis in the Lord’s Supper brings home to us the reality of our calling as Christians. This is not a ritual act isolated unto itself without consequences. Eating the bread and drinking the wine are acts of obedience to the risen Christ who said “…eat…drink….” It is by these acts that we commit ourselves to be obedient disciples in following his lead. So we pray in the Great Thanksgiving, “As this bread is Christ's body for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.”

In what ways have you experienced the Lord’s Supper where Christ is a real presence? What in the liturgy has contributed to that experience? What has detracted?

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