By Cardinal Justin Rigali
We have just celebrated Memorial Day, which is also the traditional beginning of the vacation season in the United States. This week, let us reflect on the gift of memory and our obligations to its Author.
A marvelous human characteristic
One of the greatest gifts that our Creator has given to us, His creatures made in His image and likeness, is the gift of memory. Of all the earthly orders of creation, only we possess the fullness of this ability to remember. There is even a saying which sums this up: “Memory is God’s gift to those who are limited to living in time.” God has no need for memory because for Him, all is an “eternal now.” We do not have that characteristic, but our consolation is the ability to keep in our minds the memory of so many people and experiences that are, and have been, a part of our lives.
Very often, memory impels us to gratitude. This is the origin of Memorial Day in the United States. Celebrated for over 100 years on its traditional date of May 30, Memorial Day was conceived as a way of remembering those who had died in the service of their country. This often involves parades, the decoration of graves and military honors for the dead in the nation’s Veterans’ cemeteries. In 1971, Congress made this celebration part of a three day holiday weekend and the date was moved from the fixed one of May 30. It is admirable that, even in the secular order, we use this beautiful gift of memory to turn outward, away from ourselves, in order to remember those who made great sacrifices for us.
The concept of memory in the Scriptures
This human characteristic of memory also finds an important place in the Word of God. In the Commandments, given by God on Mount Sinai, we find the third commandment phrased this way: “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8). Indeed, the word “remember” often has a meaning in Scripture that is associated with some form of worship. The concept of memory, which we find in the Old Testament, has an even stronger meaning than the one we usually associate it with in English. When the Jewish people partook of the Passover meal, for instance, they were conscious of partaking in something which was not merely a remembrance of a past event, but the actual reliving of that event in time.
This liturgical concept of memory culminates in our Lord’s gift of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The words “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25) are filled with a deep understanding of memory. “The word ‘remembrance’ is charged with the meaning of a Hebrew word which was used to convey the essence of the feast of the Passover; the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt. For the Israelites the Passover rite not only reminded them of a bygone event: they were conscious of making that event present, reviving it, in order to participate in it, in some way, generation after generation (cf. Exodus 12:26-27; Deuteronomy 6:20-25). So, when our Lord commands his Apostles to ‘do this in remembrance of me,’ it is not a matter of merely recalling his supper but of renewing his own Passover sacrifice of Calvary, which already, at the Last Supper, was present in an anticipated way” (Navarra Bible: A Text and Commentary; Corinthians, p. 118).
Showing gratitude to our Creator
The gift and concept of memory, along with the approaching vacation season, should also be a reminder for all of us that we should not forget God’s gifts, which make all things possible. It would be foolish for us to enjoy the legitimate pleasures of rest and the contemplation of the beauties of nature, found in the oceans and mountains, while forgetting their source. If creation is filled with so much beauty and wonder, how much more awesome must be the One who has created it and who sustains it!
The Book of Psalms is filled with wonderful hymns of thanksgiving, praising God for the wonders of His creation and for allowing His creatures to behold them. In Psalm 8 we read: “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars which you arranged, what is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him?” The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council puts the beauty of creation and our contemplation of it in this way: “For sacred scripture teaches that men and women were created ‘in the image of God,’ able to know and love their creator, and was set by him over all earthly creatures (cf. Genesis 1:26; Wisdom 2:23) that they might rule them, and make use of them, while glorifying God (cf. Sirach 17:3-10)” (Gaudium et Spes, 12). We are only able to live out this mission if we remember the source of all our rest and the creator of the beauty we are able to behold.
Remembering the Day of the Lord
As we contemplate the gift of memory and as a day of memory begins the traditional vacation season in the United States, we should also contemplate more fully the idea of remembering the day of the Lord, especially during vacation time. In another psalm, we are given the context of what we are able to enjoy at this time of the year and we are reminded of its source. In Psalm 127, we read: “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor; if the Lord does not watch over the city, in vain does the watchman keep vigil.” In other words, if we attempt to engage in legitimate pleasure and rest, but do it away from God, the source of all our blessings, how can we expect what we do to bring us peace?
This is one of the reasons why we can sometimes find ourselves pursuing many different forms of pleasure and recreation and yet not finding in them the peace or rest we so yearn for. If pleasure is sought apart from God, its source and author, how can we experience true peace and rest?
When we honor the Lord’s Day as He has commanded, by attending Mass and acknowledging the source of all blessings, we are able to put all things into their proper perspective. We are then able to enjoy legitimate pleasure and rest with the peace of a clear conscience and with the knowledge that we have recognized the source of all our blessings.
This is why, in the early Church, when the Christians were persecuted for their observance of Sunday and their celebration of the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day, they answered their persecutors with the words: “Without Sunday, we cannot live.” This reflected the Christian understanding that participation in the Eucharist, worshiping God, hearing His word and receiving the Body of Jesus makes all other things possible and allows them to be seen in their proper light.
The traditional beginning of the summer celebration in the United States begins with memory. This is a great gift, which the human person possesses. Let us use our memory to be grateful for the many blessings and people who have been and are a part of our lives. Let us remember in a special way those who have made sacrifices for us and for our country.
Sometimes, memory does not seem to be a blessing. We can use it to dwell upon past hurts and offenses which have been visited upon us or which we imagine were visited upon us unjustly. This is why there is a concept of the “healing of memory.” Memory is a gift and not a wound but we sometimes treat it as a wound and are deeply hurt by it. Let us ask our Lord to heal us with His grace and give us the ability to forgive those who have hurt us, just as He did from the Cross.
Finally, as many of us prepare for a much-deserved and necessary period of rest, let us not enjoy it apart from the God who sustains us and who is the source of every blessing. Let us give glory to the Creator of the wonders we contemplate and enjoy and let us remember, in the midst of days of rest and legitimate pleasure, the Day of the Lord, who makes all things possible.
28 May 2009