God’s memory

cross of christ built into a brick wall

The Lord has remembered us. He will bless us. He will bless the House of Israel. He will bless the House of Aaron.
– Psalm 115:12

We have a funny relationship with memory in western culture today. There is a massive market for nostalgia. Old television shows and movies are remade constantly. We have at our fingertips more ways of photographing, recording, and documenting life events than ever before. There is a constant craving to capture the past, to bottle it and dip our toes in it from time to time.

Yet this great nostalgia does not include a desire for continuity. We dislike the idea of tradition in any form. If an idea cannot be demonstrated to be useful by contemporary sensibilities, it is instantly tossed aside without a second thought. The same past that we view with misty-eyed sentiment when it comes to things like pop culture and fashion is seen as a tyrant when it comes to how we live our lives, our values, and the seeking of life’s true meaning.

Memory is far more than what we think it is. Memory is not just an assortment of images and recollections. To remember is to know something and make it real. It is to bring a person or an idea into the narrative of life. If I remember you, I know you. You are a part of me, and I am a part of you. This is what makes memory loss so tragic, not that it just robs us of our past, it robs us of our present as well. If I cannot remember you, I cannot know you.

Fr. Stephen Freeman, in this wonderful reflection on prayers for the dead, remarks that the divine memory is an important and central part of the Orthodox burial service. He says, “Funeral services conclude with the ancient hymn, ‘Memory eternal!’ in which the Church prays that God will forever remember the departed. To be remembered by God is nothing less than life eternal.”

This is ultimately what salvation is. It is to be remembered by God. Our memories are finite. They eventually give out. When we die, our memories die with us. Even the most famous and well known people will eventually be forgotten by history. But God remembers eternally. When He remembers you, you live. When He calls you to mind, that very action calls you into being. God chooses not to remember your sin, only your light, which is ultimately His light shining through you. Your sin is forgotten through the blood of the cross, but your life is remembered eternally through the love of God.

This is the power of the biblical concept of memory. Whenever God “remembers” someone, blessing follows. When God remembers Noah, the waters subside (Genesis 8:1). When God remembers Ruth, He opens her womb (Genesis 30:22). In remembering Ephraim, despite his sin, the Lord’s heart is warmed and He has mercy (Jeremiah 31:20). Examples abound. Whenever God remembers His covenant with Israel, He restores Israel. When He remembers us, He restores us as well.

On the cross, the thief who has faith in Jesus says to Him, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom!” And Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). He doesn’t say, “Sure thing, Buddy. I’ll think about you all the time.” He tells him that he will be with Him. That is the power of memory for God. That is what it does. It makes things real.

This is also one of the many reasons why the mystery of the Eucharist makes no sense to the world. Jesus takes bread and wine. He tells us that they are His Body and Blood. And then He says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Remembrance – the biblical word is anamnesis – is far more than just a nice reminder. Jesus is not asking us to think sweet thoughts about Him whenever we gather for a light snack. He’s telling us that as we remember Him, He remembers us. The bread and the wine may not look any different than they did before they were blessed, but they are different. Remember Him because He is what we receive at the altar, regardless of what our senses are telling us.

And this, of course, is also why we pray for the dead, not because we expect to change God’s mind about a sentence already passed, but because we long to know that those whom we love are alive in the mind and heart of God. We pray for the salvation of the dead for the same reason that we pray for the salvation of everybody else, because it is only in the light of the eternal memory of God that we live forever. His memory is our future.

Image from here.

The joy of creating

croppedRecently, my old college buddy Tom spent the weekend helping me to build an outdoor playset for my children. At least, that’s how he would describe it. It would be more accurate to say that I helped him. Tom is much more mechanically inclined than I am. I find it challenging to get the lids off of bottles. But Tom was able to look at a picture and description of the playset we wanted and take measurements and execute a plan. On Saturday morning, there was nothing in my backyard. By Sunday afternoon, there was a full size swing set, fort, slide, and rock wall with two very happy little boys climbing all over it.

It is joyous to create something like that. It is hard work, to be sure, yet there is an experience of the divine in it. God is the Creator. He is the maker of heaven and earth. We are made in His image. We share that same creative spark, that same yearning to make things.

I have never been good at making things with my hands, but I have always been good at making things out of words: Poems, songs, essays, stories, and sermons. I feel the same deep sense of satisfaction in that exercise that many people feel in making things out of stone, steel, and wood. You begin with nothing but a blank page and the spark of an idea. You connect one word to another, forming patterns of sound, rhyme, and thought. And when you are finished, if you are lucky, you have created something beautiful and unique that fills the space that was once empty. If that is the case, you can look at your work with satisfaction and without the least sense of arrogance or conceit say, “It is finished and it is good.”

Of course, I don’t always say that. Sometimes I look at what I’ve written and say, “It is crap.” Then I start over. Creation is a much more fraught process for human beings than it is for God. But in those rare moments when I get it right, I feel deeply gratified because something of God’s own creative life has worked through me to bring something new and wonderful into being.

When I write something, it feels as if it is flowing directly out of my soul, but that is not entirely true. In fact what I am doing is rearranging what was there before. I did not invent the words that I use. They are the raw materials that I build with, much like the large pile of lumber that we acquired in order to put together that playset. Even in the creative act that most resembles God’s own work, the act of begetting and bearing children, the action is not purely ours. The raw material of sperm and egg and chromosomes is developed into something gloriously, wonderfully new, yet it is only possible because those things were gifted to us.

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God creates out of nothing. When I think about that – I mean really think about it – I have to catch my breath. It is inconceivable to me, as someone who creates, not to have to use any building blocks. It was inconceivable to many in the ancient world as well, such as Plato and Aristotle. Yet that is the audacious claim that is revealed in Holy Scripture. God created out of nothing. There was nothing at all, no building blocks, no starting point. And then God said, “Let there be light.” And there was.

All of our raw supplies are God given. The wood for the playset came from trees, which came from other trees, which came from earlier plant life, which came from cells, which if you follow the chain back far enough came directly from the creative act of the Lord speaking a word. The words for writing evolve from languages that find their way back inexorably to that same first word. The biological building blocks of reproduction are handed down to us – traditioned to us – by the One who made all biology, the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. What a grand and unexpected joy! When we create, we partner with God. And when our creative work is done and something beautiful appears where before there was nothing, God says, “It is finished and it is good.”

God’s Self Portrait

Villers_Young_Woman_Drawing

The French painter Marie-Denise Villers painted her most famous work, Young Woman Drawing, in 1801. It is a masterpiece and it is now widely believed that the painting is a self portrait. Every detail is powerfully communicative, from the way the light touches the folds of her dress and the strands of her hair to the posture with which she sits to draw her subject, presumably looking into a mirror. Though I was born more than two centuries after Villers and I know virtually nothing about her, just looking at this image makes me feel like I am in relationship with her.

Of course, this is part of the idea behind iconography. It is one of the reasons why so many icons portray Christ or the saints staring out at us. Icons are meant to be windows into the figures they depict. By seeing a saint’s image on an icon, we have a focus for calling out to that saint and offering our devotion. But neither Jesus nor the saints painted their own icons. What makes a self portrait so compelling to me is the idea that this is the artist’s own best expression of herself or himself. By painting herself, Villers has left behind a small piece of herself by which we can come to know her far more intimately than if the painting had been done by anyone else.

Over the past year, I have been reading and studying Saint Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Based on 129 Wednesday audience talks that the pope gave between 1979 and 1984, it is breath taking in its scope. The Church has not yet really begun to plumb its depths, and I have personally only scratched the surface of the surface, but if I were to try and sum up the central animating principle of this work, I would say that the human body is designed to speak to us the Gospel. This is part of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. From Genesis through Revelation, the Scripture reveals to us over and over again that our bodies are God’s self portrait.

Central to this observation is the notion of sexual complementarity. This can be confusing, particularly since what John Paul means by sexual complementarity is different from how most Evangelicals use that term. What John Paul means is that our maleness and femaleness are not arbitrary. In the very ordering of our bodies as men and women, we see the attributes of God displayed. As men and women relate to each other, particularly in the Sacrament of marriage and in the bond of sexual union, there is expressed there a mystical unveiling of God’s own self. The love, fidelity, and fruitfulness of marriage, expressed through our bodies, is an icon of the love, fidelity, and generativity of God.

I find this to be such a beautiful idea, not just because it gives me an insight into the nature of God, but because of how blessedly affirming it is of bodies. To think of my body and the bodies of other people as holy icons is to re-imagine what the body is all about. Despite my imperfections, my extra pounds, my creeping gray, my body is a self portrait of God. And that is also true for other people, regardless of their size and shape, age, or the color of their skin.

Moreover, it means that I have something to learn from the bodies of women that is far greater than what the culture tells me women’s bodies are all about. The prevalent wisdom of western culture, written large on just about any blank surface, is that our bodies exist only for personal pleasure, and that women’s bodies in particular are made solely for the use and enjoyment of men. The Theology of the Body turns that deeply sinful notion upside down. It says that our bodies are holy and meant to point far beyond themselves to the very source of holiness. As I learn what it means to be a man, understanding the masculine nature of my body, I gain some insight into God. But just as importantly, as I learn to see femininity for what it really is, realizing the true blessedness of what God has expressed in the bodies of women that is different from what He has expressed in the bodies of men, I come to a fuller, richer picture of who God is and how He is at work in the world.

Of course, there is always the danger that the sign gets confused for the thing it signifies. As much as I love Marie-Denise Villers’ self portrait, I realize that it is not actually her. It is only a sign of the truth of who she is. If she were in the room with me, it would be ludicrous for me to ignore her in favor of the portrait. Likewise, the body is a sign of the reality of God, but God is in Himself much more than what He has expressed through His creation. The right way to appreciate the body is to see it the same way we see an icon, not as the thing that it depicts but as a doorway that can lead us into greater relationship.

All of this makes me wish I could paint. Alas, I cannot. But I am grateful for the gift of art in this world that points to the existence of God’s great majesty, just as I am grateful for God’s own artistry that draws each of us into the mystery of His love.