Sunday, February 21, 2010


First Sunday in Lent – Year C (RCL)
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
Sunday, February 21, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

While on my first pilgrimage to England to study Benedictine Spirituality, one of the places that our group went was Stanbrook Abbey, a Roman Catholic Benedictine convent in Worcestershire. Shortly after our arrival, we met with Dame Joanna, the abbess. As we sat around the cozy parlor, we were like children sitting at the feet of a parent or a teacher. We all listened intently as Dame Joanna told us the history of Stanbrook Abbey. She told us about the nine women who founded their original convent in 1623 in Flanders. After over a century and a half, the nuns were forcibly removed from their home during the French Revolution and imprisoned under very harsh conditions for 18 months. During their imprisonment, four of the sisters died. Upon release of the remaining nuns, despite being penniless, they made their way to England. In 1838, the nuns eventually settled in Stanbrook and began building a new abbey. And on it went, as Dame Joanna continued with the history of the Abbey up to the present.

The story she told was absolutely fascinating – worthy of a made-for-TV miniseries. But what struck me most was not the story itself, but rather the way that she told it. Throughout, from 1623 up to 1994, she told the entire story with great passion, in the first person. WE established our original convent in Flanders in 1623. WE were forcibly removed from our home during the French Revolution. WE were imprisoned for 18 months. WE made our way to England. You get the picture. It was as if Dame Joanna had been there every step of the way, throughout the Abbey’s 371 year history, living it just as her foremothers did. These were not just some historical facts she was conveying. She was not just telling the story of the Abbey. She was telling her story. For in some mystical way, they are one and the same. The two cannot be separated.

While we don’t really have an English term to describe what happened in that parlor, in Dame Joanna’s telling of her story, there is a Greek term for it – anamnesis. Generally translated as “memorial, recalling, or remembrance,” the term is actually untranslatable into English, because it is not so much the mental recollection of a past event, but rather “an objective action in and by which the event is realized as present.” In some mystical way, the remembering of the event makes it present and real in the here and now.

That’s what’s happening in one way or another in all of our scripture readings for today. In the passage from Deuteronomy, the Israelites have just completed their 40-year trek through the desert. They are on the edge of Canaan, poised to enter the much awaited Promised Land. Before they enter their new home, Moses is giving them final instructions. In the portion that we heard this morning, Moses is issuing a creedal statement about who these people are, an affirmation of the covenant between them and YHWH. After describing some of the requisite liturgical acts, Moses says “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” In what follows, he is tracing the story of the people back to Jacob and how he and his sons went down into Egypt. He is recalling how the people prospered, but eventually became slaves to the Egyptians. He is recalling God’s deliverance of the people from the hands of the Egyptians, the Exodus, and the 40 years of wandering and testing in the wilderness that they had just come through. He is recalling how God has given them this new land as their home in which they are to be fruitful and become a blessing to the nations. This is not just ancient history. This is their story. This is who they are. This story gives meaning to their very existence. In fact, to this day, the Jewish people continue to recall, to remember the Passover and the subsequent Exodus which defines not only their religion, but who they are as a people and as individuals – an act of anamnesis. In the retelling, they are there. They have experienced it.

Similarly, Paul’s words in the Epistle to the Romans provide what may be one of the earliest creedal statements of the Christian faith. Paul takes us right to the foundation of what it means to be a Christian. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” What more is needed? This simple sentence says it all. Paul does not feel a need to do much elaboration on this statement, yet the recipients of his epistle, the church in Rome, and all followers of Christ in the first century would have, through anamnesis, experienced in these words the entire story of Jesus and his ministry. In them, they would have heard his parables, witnessed his miracles, helplessly watched as he was beaten and crucified, marveled at seeing the empty tomb, and rejoiced at his post-resurrection appearances.

And even the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as presented in Luke entails anamnesis as Jesus does not simply engage in a war of wills and of words with the devil, but rather with each presented temptation, recalls a portion of Israel’s story, his story, and responds with scriptural references directly tied to that story. In the first temptation, Jesus has not eaten in 40 days and is undoubtedly hungry. This 40 days in the desert without food is reminiscent of the 40 years in the desert, where the Israelites had no food. God provided manna for the people to eat, and to serve as a reminder that “one does not live by bread alone.” And it is this response, out of that ancient story that nourished him, with which Jesus replies to the devil. In the second temptation, the devil tries to get Jesus to abandon God and worship him. This is reminiscent of the continual struggle throughout the time in the wilderness and even upon entering the Promised Land in which the Israelites were tempted to worship other gods – either idols of their own making or the gods of the inhabitants of Canaan. As Moses told the people back then, Jesus now responds to the devil, “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” And in the third temptation, the devil sets up a challenge to try to get Jesus to test God’s faithfulness. This is an allusion to the desperation of the Israelites, when they were in the wilderness, thirsty for water, and because of their lack of faith, put God to the test at Massah. In so doing, the Israelites question the general trustworthiness of God as the people wander in the wilderness, lost, hungry, and thirsty. Here again, in response to the devil, Jesus quotes Moses’ response to the Israelites, “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

In all of these temptations, Jesus is reminded of the story that is not just the story of his ancestors, but which is also his own. Through anamnesis, through remembering the story and making it present in his own life, Jesus was able to find the guidance and the strength needed to resist the devil’s temptations and to provide time-tested and irrefutable responses.

In biblical times, telling of the story of the people, of one’s forefathers and foremothers was an integral part of life. Theirs was an oral culture, relying on remembrance of the stories so that they might be preserved for future generations. That was how the stories of the Old Testament were passed on for generations before they were committed to writing. And in that seemingly simple yet necessary act of telling and retelling the stories, something transformative happened. The story became not only the history of the people, it became the story of the individual. The story became part of who they were, informing how they lived their lives and how they themselves would contribute to the on-going story. This was an act of anamnesis.

This is still the case for some of what we consider “primitive cultures.” Sadly, we in the 21st century western world are losing the art of storytelling. It may not be completely lost, but it is greatly diminished, particularly with each passing generation. There are many reasons for this – our reliance on written documentation to convey history and story; the fact that we no longer live in tribes or extended family groupings, so that our young do not have ready access to the stories, to the wisdom of our elders; just to name a couple. But what is far sadder is the fact that in losing the ability to repeatedly hear the stories, to retell the stories, they do not become a part of who we are. When we hear them, they are nice bits of history, but we are disconnected from them. The stories are not ours. We do not have the ability to make them our own, to make them part of who we are.

One place where that does not have to be the case, where that shouldn’t be the case, is in the Church. Our religion is based on a story that stretches back for millennia, a story that defines who we are. And as a result, ours is a religion based on anamnesis, on the power of the stories to be made present in the here and now so that they become our own stories, shaping and informing who we are. This is particularly evident at this table every time we make Eucharist. In every Eucharistic prayer, we recall the works of salvation history, we recall the events of the Last Supper. And every Eucharistic prayer has a section that is actually called the anamnesis – the words that say “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.” The intent is not that the Eucharist is just some bit of ritual. It is making real, in the here and now, in this place, the central story of our faith – Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension – so that in that moment, we are living it as our own story.

While we know the stories, many of us have forgotten that they are our story. We have forgotten how to make them our own. As such, we need to learn the stories in a different way. As we begin the Lenten season, I can think of no better time to really focus on living into the stories of our faith. For Lent really is about hearing the story and making it our own. In the ancient church, Lent was the time when the catechumens would study and learn, hearing from the elders of the church the stories of our faith. And in the hearing of the stories, the catechumens would be transformed, through the power of anamnesis, so that the story of our forefathers and foremothers became present to them and thereby became their own story.

As we travel through Lent and indeed the entire liturgical year, we hear the stories. We hear our story. In them, WE went down into Egypt. After a time of prosperity, WE became slaves to the Egyptians. And then, through the grace of God, WE were liberated. WE wandered in the wilderness for 40 long years before reaching the Promised Land, OUR new home.

WE were there with the shepherds witnessing the birth of an infant king in a manger in Bethlehem. WE were baptized by John in the River Jordan. WE followed Jesus for three years, listening to his teachings, struggling with his parables, witnessing his miracles of healing. WE were with him at his last meal in the Upper Room. And then WE watched as he was arrested, taken away, subjected to a mock trial, helpless to do anything. WE were there at the foot of the cross with Mary and John, as our Master was crucified. But then, on the third day, WE went to the tomb with Mary and the other women and found it empty. And WE rejoiced at his being raised from the dead and even more so when he appeared to US, to see him, to touch him, to put our hands in his wounds.

This Lenten season, why not try something a little different? Why not try a little anamnesis? Read the stories of our faith. Put yourself in them. Make them present to you in the here and now. See how they are not just some ancient stories, but how they are your story. See how they are a part of you, shaping and informing who you are as a beloved child of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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